A 'Stand-Off' over Native Americana in 'Cry, Trojans!'

From his seat in the audience at REDCAT on Saturday, Randy Reinholz booed. He was registering his response at the end of the first act of the Wooster Group's "Cry, Trojans!"

WoosterGroup_CryTrojans05.jpgReinholz, the founding artistic director of Native Voices, the Native American theater company based at the Autry, is also an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He found "Cry, Trojans!" - in which white actors from New York pose as Native Americans in an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" - "offensive and racist," in his words.

A few audience members approached him as intermission began, after he booed. The first group was initially hostile. But his subsequent conversation with other audience members who approached him was "very calm." Someone asked him if he might be a plant from within the production -- in other words, part of the show.

Hardly. This production didn't need to stimulate any additional controversy by using scripted hecklers. Its depiction of Native Americana was already generating angry responses, especially on social media in its LA run - in contrast to the response to a recent workshop run in New York.

As it happens, Reinholz's own company, Native Voices, is currently offering the premiere of "Stand-Off at Hwy #37," a traditionally realistic play that in some ways parallels the situation in "Cry, Trojans!" but in other ways delivers a sharp riposte to the muddled artifice of "Cry, Trojans!"

In Vickie Ramirez's "Stand-Off," set in the present in upstate New York, a small group of Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois) take a stand against a proposed new road that they contend will cut across tribal land without their permission. The eldest of the group (LaVonne Rae Andrews) smiles as she resists by straddling her chair across the soon-to-be-bulldozed border.

SOH293-shirley.jpgThree representatives of the National Guard arrive to help maintain order, and one of them (Eagle Young) is a member of the Haudenosaunee. He vows to obey his orders from his Guard officer (Matt Kirkwood) without letting his background influence him, but when push comes to shove...

Playwright Vickie Ramirez is herself from the Tuscarora tribe of the Haudenosaunee, with whom she obviously sympathizes, but she isn't deaf to the other side's arguments, especially those of the young black woman (Tinasha LaRayƩ) who's in the National Guard contingent. Ramirez also depicts the two younger Native activists (Kalani Queypo, DeLanna Studi) as having personal regrets that shadow their motivations. Meanwhile, a New York Times reporter (Fran de Leon) is on the scene, increasingly confident that she has a compelling story.

In other words, Ramirez seems to appreciate the importance of examining the situation without blinders as much as possible, even while registering her own point of view about the dispute. She maintains admirable clarity of vision - until near the end, when the plotting momentarily raises a few questions, after one particular character suddenly reverses course offstage without sufficient explanation.

Still, "Stand-Off" is considerably more lucid than "Cry, Trojans!," which closed Sunday. "Trojans" began as a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a 2012 production of the enormously challenging "Troilus and Cressida" in the UK. Shakespeare's play is set during the Trojan War. In that 2012 effort, the Americans played the Trojans as generic early American Indians, while the Brits played the invading Greeks (and, judging from photos, dressed in present-day military fatigues). Apparently the production attempted to comment on American imperialism through the centuries.

Returning to America after a disappointing reaction to the London production, the Wooster Group's director Elizabeth LeCompte decided to revive the material by assigning her actors to play all the parts on both sides, with the title "Cry, Trojans!," but also with the assistance of a tape of the British voices from the London production.

And so, at the play's official premiere at REDCAT, both the Trojans and the Greeks wore Indian clothes, while a tipi dominated the background. Almost any direct parallel to American imperialism faded - the conflict looked more like an inter-tribal Native war.

The Greeks were distinguished from the Trojans mostly by wearing little black masks atop their Indian outfits, which still exposed enough of the men's skin that the costumes (inadvertently? or ironically?) emphasized how white these actors are. They seemed to be white guys playing "Indians and Indians," as opposed to "cowboys and Indians."

With most of the actors in multiple roles and with Wooster's signature assortment of sometimes opaque design choices, confusion reigned during far too much of this production.

Indeed, even Reinholz, in a written statement after seeing "Cry, Trojans!," allowed that the lack of conceptual clarity prevented him from assuming that the goal of Wooster's "offensive stereotypes" was to provoke -- "It was unclear if the company's intention was to offend by these images and narratives. It is unclear what social change the piece was advocating for by enraging Native people. It is clear - they were racist."

In a talkback after the Friday performance, LeCompte cited a number of secondary sources she used in her research - books, movies, tapes, some of which were created by Native Americans. But there was scant evidence that she had talked to any Native Americans. According to Reinholz, "there are thousands of Native American theater artists, scholars, and community leaders easily available for art makers to call upon. We are not hiding in the margins."

During the talkback, LeCompte said a close friend - a playwright - had told her, "I wouldn't do a play like this without making sure I had a Native American in it." But, LeCompte added, "that is not where I live. I wouldn't do that. I couldn't do that." Then, though her language was vague, she appeared to indicate that she thought that adding Native Americans to the company would be seen as "who's at the party?" tokenism - "and that's horrible to me....Plus it's not about that. It's about everything bigger...We love the piece, we love the stories, we love the films, we love the people...We wanted to tell the story in this way and make it so big that this [lack of direct Native American input] wouldn't be a problem."

New York, we have a problem.

For the record, let it be noted that Wooster has also presented Kate Valk, the white actress who plays Cressida here, in blackface in the title role of "The Emperor Jones." I didn't see that production, but it sounds as it would have resulted in a much more biting satire of racial stereotypes than what we get in "Cry, Trojans!," in which the intent too often remains clouded.

Asked for a comment, REDCAT executive director Mark Murphy emailed to say that "I appreciate that it is a complicated play and a complicated issue. I know that the artists had no intention to offend anyone."

He said the Wooster Group is "a remarkable and influential company and I deeply value our years of collaboration with them. I look eagerly forward to their next projects."

Meanwhile, Native Voices has offered to accept any used or unused tickets to "Cry, Trojans!" for admission to "Stand-Off at Hwy #37," which plays at the Autry in Griffith Park through next Sunday.

Top: Andrew Schneider and Ari Fliakos in "Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida)." Photo by James Allister Sprang. Bottom: Eagle Young as Private Thomas Lee Doxdater, Kalani Queypo as Darrin. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

More by Don Shirley:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed