Thursday, November 09, 2017

Don't Feed the Indians - A Divine Comedy Pageant

Don't Feed the Indians - A Divine Comedy Pageant has inflated its title a bit. The La MaMa world premiere of Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective Projects was created and features an all Native American cast that proudly showcases each members' heritage on the bios displayed in the lobby.

Conceived, written and directed by Murielle Borat-Tarrant (Kuna/Rappahannock) with musical direction by Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk), the show attempts to tackle Native cliches, from the alcoholic Indian to the bare-chested, feather-garbed performer by using vaudeville, dance, music and cultural rituals to show the stereotypes that were formed and are still perpetuated by the entertainment industry as well as the difficulties of being an Indian performer.

Don't Feed the Indians relies on its actors, posed as a group of traveling performers, to mix a loose tale of their showbiz experience with video montages and asides to both entertain and educate the audience. Unfortunately, the show merely brushes the surface of the many complex topics threaded through the dialogue. Names and phrases such as Leonard Peltier, Standing Rock, Wounded Knee Massacre, Indian Removal Act, Indian Boarding Schools become more a litany than a lesson since, often, no context is offered to connect the audience. Lines such as "Tribal members on reservations were not allowed to vote until 1970" give better resonance because they provide understanding -- and the show needs to do more of that. Lampooning the inequities of Native Americans without trying to explain the history more thoroughly is a missed opportunity.

Even the videos have no captions so the audience does not recognize what they're seeing. Yet, the script includes some commentary: for instance, "Hey Ya on Grammys, Rock Hudson in Winchester '73, Burt Lancaster in Apache, Iron Eyes Cody, Natalie Wood in The Searchers, Alana Sanders from 'Peter Pan Live,' Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. All while the Peter Pan 'Ugg a Wugg' song plays." Some of the delicious irony is lost here when the audience doesn't get the references.

Borst-Tarrant, who comes from a five-decade family business that did Wild West shows and pageants, shines as the drily humorous centerpiece of the play's show, Bea. Under her delivery, the rather tepid jokes find more fodder than they should and her rapport with her drum-playing husband is acerbic and delightful. Many of the skits in Don't Feed the Indians simply don't work, though. A bit called "Keeping Up With Pocahontas," where the family confesses to eating her pet raccoon one Thanksgiving is humorless and features screeching participants. It's unfortunate because Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective has a noble goal of creating a "new paradigm for the presentation of Indigenous arts and culture within the broader American theatre to combat stereotypes and support vibrant Native American communities." I hope their next effort is more successful.

John Scott-Richardson (Haliwa-Saponi Nation), Danielle Soames (Mohawk/Kahnawake Nations), Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk Nations), Nicholson Billey (Delaware/Choctaw/Creek Nations), George Stonefish (Delaware/Chippewa Nations). Photo by: Maya Bitan. 


The show runs from Nov. 2-19 at La MaMa's Downstairs Theatre (66 East 4th St.). For more information, visit

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