Contemporary Native American drama, like the drama of other American minority groups, was born in the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as the success of the Civil Rights movement and the failure of the Vietnam War became apparent to most Americans. As the viewpoint of a single dominant racial group loosened its hold on the culture, the validity of other viewpoints was considered. Drama was a powerful tool in this cultural revolution. Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (pr. 1959) gave Americans an unforgettable glimpse of the dignity and self-defined agency of an African American family. Frank Chin and other Asian American playwrights established a theater group that would educate the United States about issues such as the atrocities of Angel Island, the heroism of workers on the transcontinental railroad, and the unnecessary humiliation of the Japanese American internment camps.
The American Indian Theatre Ensemble, founded in 1972 and changed to the Native American Theatre Ensemble in 1973, took on the tremendous and exhilarating task of presenting, through drama, Native Americans in their own terms. The figure of the Indian in American literature, as in popular literature and culture of several centuries, was a misrepresentation, skewered between the misbegotten poles of the uncivilized “savage” and the romantic keeper of nature’s secrets. In a labor no less Herculean than that of African American dramatists, Native American playwrights tried to shake themselves free of centuries of stereotypes to create realistic characters conceived from their own personal experiences. The American Indian Theater Ensemble resolved not only to rectify the cultural image of the Native American but also to produce a body of drama intended primarily for the Indian community.
A key figure in the history of contemporary Native American drama is playwright Hanay Geiogamah . His work is well represented in two anthologies of Native American drama: Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Native American Plays (1999) and Stories of Our Way: An Anthology of American Indian Plays (1999). Of Kiowa and Delaware background, Geiogamah was active in the crucial founding years of the American Indian Theatre Ensemble, which produced his one-act play Body Indian (pr. 1972).
Body Indian is a difficult play and demonstrates the problems Native American playwrights face in creating a new, realistic drama based on contemporary Native American life. At first reading, the play seems to be about alcoholism (a disease that has disproportionately plagued Native Americans since early European settlers used alcohol as an item of trade), and its realism is intense and shocking. Bobby, in his thirties, is alcoholic; he has lost a leg in a drunken stupor on the railroad tracks. As the play begins, he arrives at his Indian “uncle’s” apartment with two of his aunts. The group gathered there has been drinking for some time, as have Bobby and his aunts. There is some socializing and more drinking. Then Bobby, who has hidden in his artificial leg some money he plans to use to enter a detoxification program, passes out. The group of friends and relatives move toward him, intent on finding some cash to restock the dwindling wine supply. Before the play ends, Bobby has been robbed a half dozen times; his money is gone, and his uncle is about to leave the apartment to pawn Bobby’s artificial leg.
The problem for a mainstream audience is the tone of the play: The intense realism seems to be the tool of social tragedy. In an interview in a special “Ethnic Theater” issue (1989-1990) of the multicultural literary journal Melus celebrating the first ten years of the New WORLD Theater, Geiogamah himself admits to being unsure of the play’s tone before he took it to a Native American audience. That audience’s reaction to the humorous side of the play made the playwright realize he had created a tragicomedy, one that not only successfully...
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