What do an Olympic champion, a soccer dad and two video gamers have in common? They’re all characters in the second Short Play Festival, an annual event hosted by Native Voices at the Autry.
This year’s theme, in honor of Jim Thorpe, who won two gold medals at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, was “Native Americans Take the Field.”
The themes of competition and reward were apt for the staged reading held November 3, at which six playwrights’ work was on display. To the victor, after all, would go the spoils — specifically, a $1,000 prize.
Since 1999, Native Voices has developed and produced Native plays in Los Angeles. Recently it became involved with Alaska’s Last Frontier Theater Conference, a non-Native event that includes short plays.
“We got to talking,” said Jean Bruce Scott, executive director of Native Voices, “and thought that was an excellent opportunity to bring in some new writers. Some who perhaps hadn’t written a full-length play, or a one-act play. And the short-play format would be a little less intimidating.”
They decided to hold a short-play festival and offer a cash prize. Named for the storytelling grandmother of executive director Randy Reinholz, Choctaw, it became the Von Marie Atchley Excellence in Playwriting Award.
The inaugural theme was “Indians in America: What You See Is What You Get.” In other words, said Scott, “Native Americans are on the scene, and they can be in any walk of life. So it was really meant to be: Look at us, we are here. We’re still here.”
Native Voices put out a call for scripts and received more than 40 submissions. The winner was “Raven One” by Lucas Rowley, Inupiaq. It told of a mixed-blood Native and a white man on a deep-space mission.
This year’s theme was inspired by Chris Canole, Sac and Fox, an artist, actor and writer. Canole has long been fascinated by Native athletes in general and Jim Thorpe, also Sac and Fox, in particular. For a screenplay he was writing, he did a charcoal drawing of Thorpe.
Canole contacted Native Voices to see if they were doing anything to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Thorpe’s Olympic triumph. He offered to donate the drawing as an incentive. After talking with him, the “Taking the Field” sports theme was born.
The Short Play Festival received 27 submissions this year. “We were all just really impressed with the breadth of stories,” said Scott. It’s telling that of the six plays selected as finalists, just two focused on the same sport — and that was track and field, the stage on which Thorpe gave his great Olympic performance.
In the one-man play “Soccer Dad,” by Gary Harrington, the title character roots for his son on the sidelines while reminiscing about his past. A minor athlete himself, the father endured racist taunts on the field. He lived through his brother’s athletic career until a knife wound ended it.
Harrington, Comanche, started as a lawyer but got into screenwriting to educate people about the Indian Child Welfare Act. He’s produced several short films, but Soccer Dad is his first play.
The work is clearly autobiographical. “Just as the protagonist in my play does,” said Harrington, “I had to live vicariously from the sidelines” – both as a brother to a championship player and now as a parent and coach.
He wants people to think of sports as a great equalizer. “When we suit up for the game, Native Americans show we deserve our place on the field. That’s the feeling I’m trying to embody in my play.”
Dennis Tibbetts’ “The Record Holders,” tells the story of an old record holder who sneaks into a track meet where a young runner is poised to break his record. The veteran blesses the youngster the way his grandfather blessed him, inspiring the youth to win.
Tibbetts, Ojibwe, has written off and on. His own experiences led to this play. “My grandfather was an athlete at Carlisle [Indian Industrial School] shortly after the great Jim Thorpe,” he said. “When I was thirteen I started running on my own early in the morning. I had gone a couple of miles and I could feel my grandfather next to me telling me how to run.
“I would like the audience to simply see and hear Indian men who care for one another,” he added. “To see that in the midst of struggle there is an essence to life that can keep us moving beyond the ordinary, something that is worth doing because of the beauty and the challenge of it.”
A troubled young man gets bailed out of jail to play a game of stickball, the traditional Southeastern sport, in “Sticks,” by Brent Jones. One old friend chides him while another encourages him. He resists but eventually realizes the game may help heal his wounds.
Jones, Muscogee Creek, is an experienced playwright who’s seen several of his plays produced. He’s written a full-length play with stickball as the backdrop, but found he had more to say in this one-act drama.
“Stickball for tribes in the south and southeast part of the country is more than just a game,” said Jones. “It is a way of expressing warrior-hood, manhood and family.
“Thematically, the play encourages a man to ‘take the field’ to get his life back on the straight and narrow. By getting back into the things he loves along with his friends, he can do just that.”
Lucas Rowley, Inupiaq, returned to the short play festival with “Champ,” a play about two video gamers: an Apache and his Alaska Native friend (who’s called “The Penguin”). The Apache’s grandfather thinks they’re slackers and worse, but they convince him they’re serious about competing.
Rowley grew up writing science fiction and playing video games. He was accepted into the Alaska Native Playwrights Project three years ago and has been writing plays ever since.
“I really liked pushing the idea of video games as a sport,” he said. “I think it’s relevant with the way modern culture is going.
“I hope the audience will think about the radical changes the younger generation is bringing with all of the information and digital media we have today,” he added, “and maybe be a little more open to it. I also wanted to introduce some traditional Alaska Native sports to an audience who might not have heard of them before … and maybe bring a smile with some of the humor I snuck in!”
Claude A. Jackson Jr.’s “They Shoot Basketballs, Don’t They” finds a group of rez kids casually shooting baskets when an NBA scout shows up. He doesn’t think much of them, but a coach informs him that one is a potential star. The scout doesn’t believe it until the boy proves it.
Jackson, Pima/Hopi, has always written stories as a hobby. “I got into writing plays because I love Shakespeare and love watching theater performances,” he said. “This is the first play I’ve ever written.
“I had this idea of a young Native American man with an extraordinary ability to shoot 75-foot three-pointers,” he continued. “I felt that my story would be ideal for this theme.
“Basketball is the national pastime for most Native American nations. Even as we speak, somewhere in Indian Country, kids are playing basketball. I wanted to merge this notion with the fantastic premise that a young man from the rez could shoot obscenely long three-pointers.”
Although the audiences clearly enjoyed all the entries, victory belonged to “Home of the Running Brave.” In Darrell Dennis’ play, the world’s fastest man is called before an Olympic commission for wanting to run under his tribal flag rather than the American flag. He’s worked hard and sacrificed to become the best, but officials give him an ultimatum.
Dennis, Shuswap, started as an actor but moved into playwriting when he found the Native roles “stereotypical and sometimes downright offensive.” His “Tales of an Urban Indian” has toured the country, including off-Broadway.
Native athletes often struggle just to “take the field” against Olympic-level competition, he said. “So what if there was a Native American who actually ‘took’ the field, and held them hostage in a way?”
The play echoes the 2010 Haudenosaunee passport conflict. “It is important to remember that there are two sides to the history of every flag, and the dark past is just as much a part of the history of that flag as the inspirational side,” said Dennis.
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The Short Play Festival is proving its worth, said Jean Bruce Scott. Native Voices is developing new plays with several of its short-play writers. It also plans to hold short-play workshops in the coming year. In addition, the plays provide opportunities for Natives to try their hand at stage managing and directing.
“Last year we were happily surprised,” said Scott before the festival. “We had a full house. And people really enjoyed the show, and stayed for all six plays.” In 2012, it was more of the same.