It’s not a comedy, but Jack Kohler, director and writer of this Nisenan-language rock opera about to tour the West promises moments of hilarity. Hilarity “and the right balance of truth and honesty, satire and optimism.”
Something Inside Is Broken’s central story line is the Nisenan people’s encounter with Johann Sutter in the pre-Gold Rush years. It’s told largely through the voices of female characters who bore the brunt of Sutter’s style of servitude, which included sexual exploitation.
The show got up on its feet last spring with performances at Sacramento area colleges—Sierra College and Sacramento State. It’s portrayal of local history was made richer by the local families who came to see their own stories portrayed in rock ballads, choruses and spirited raps, accompanied by a band playing violins, viola, cello, Native flute and trumpet, electric and acoustic guitar, piano, bass and percussion.
The production has since been retooled, sharpened up and, according to creator Alan Wallace, recast with more seasoned voices in some key roles. Everyone involved is eager to bring forward this rock ’n roll, hip-hop mashup that gloriously celebrates its people’s indigenous language. Nisenan is sung, spoken, and is central to the show.
Half of the 26 original songs are performed in Nisenan because Wallace is passionate about sharing the language.
“I’ve always thought the Nisenan language had the potential for a much higher level of communication than can be done in English,” Wallace told News from Native California Magazine. “It’s much more intellectual. It’s much more multi-dimensional.”
Multi-dimensionality is a core creative principle in Something Inside Is Broken. Scenes take place in four temporal zones: 1846, the pre-Gold Rush years; a genesis moment when the Worldmaker created human beings; 1906, an important year in California treaty rights history, and Frontier Idol, a localized time specific to a reality television show, which could be now or slightly in the future.
Something Inside Is Broken is produced by On Native Ground, a tribal nonprofit multimedia company that is well known for producing original content for television, including groundbreaking documentaries on environmental justice and social justice issues. The play has received support via a GoFundMe campaign, as well as from tribal sponsors.
The fall tour has been sponsored by the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians and the Tuolumne Band of Me-wuk Indians. It will launch with three shows in Sacramento, one of which is the last event of the state’s Native American Day holiday celebration at the State Capitol. Then the cast of 24 takes to the road for a single show in Reno, four performances at Phoenix’s Herberger Theater Center, three at the Escondido Center for the Arts, one show at UC Davis, and after that … Broadway? Tucked in next to the Richard Roger’s Theater where Hamilton is playing? That’s the dream, anyway.
Natalie Benally, who recently danced at the Riddhu Riddhu festival in Norway as a member of Dancing Earth Creations, thinks the show should and can go all the way. A citizen of the Navajo Nation, she plays Pulba (dove in Nisenan), who falls into Sutter’s clutches. She’s also the show’s dance captain.
“We’re still growing it,” she said. “Polishing up the choreography.”
Benally acted the voice of Dory in Disney Pixar’s Navajo Nemo, and recently joined the cast of Something Inside Is Broken in part because of the opportunity to learn and explore another indigenous language besides Diné. And too, the music really grabbed her. She said she fell in love with her solo even before she knew what the words meant.
“It had a haunting atmosphere; there’s a hint in the music that the normality of their lives is coming to an end,” she said. “I’m glad that doesn’t get sugarcoated.”
The young actress is candid about the fact that she brings real life experience of both sexual abuse and assault to her portrayal of Pulba. Both in the play and in her personal biography, she sees these violent acts as a consequence of colonization.
“Colonization stripped our people of our humanity, of our ability to live,” Benally said. “Our bodies were in the way of expansion. It broke the spirit of a lot of people.”
Benally views the show as being a vehicle for healing the brokenness.
“I’ve been waiting for something like this to come about,” she said. “When I was acting in school shows at Fort Lewis College, I’d think, maybe someday I’ll be able to play one of my people in a show.”
Kohler, who is also the show’s composer, wrote the show’s finale “Wretched Little Things” after seeing Donald Trump perform in one of the Republican Party debates.
“It’s a song about the five percent of bad people in the world, like Sutter, who ruin everything for everyone else, and who mess up the whole world for generations to come, from the Klamath River,” where Kohler’s people are from,” to the Amazon River to Standing Rock, North Dakota,” Kohler said.
For the cast of a show that is largely about Manifest Destiny, it’s not surprising that the events unfolding at Standing Rock are a source of inspiration during the long days and nights of Nisenan language instruction and rehearsal.
“When I heard about the pepper spray and dogs being unleashed on my people at Standing Rock, I had a strong impulse to get in the car and go,” Benally said. “But what we’re doing is important too. The next morning I walked down to the river to say prayers at sunrise, burn herbs and bless the water. I realized I could connect with the water protectors in North Dakota through prayer, I could participate spiritually.”
Her prayer was to fix the brokenness inside once and for all.
“Our time to fix this is now,” she said.