“I’ve been writing plays since I was in sixth grade,” says William S. YellowRobe. “I was born on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Northeastern Montana, and I had a bad truancy problem. I couldn’t stay in school. I hated school. But I had a teacher, a white woman, named Dorothy Grow. One day I was cutting class and I went to my grandma’s house to hide out. As soon as I went in, there drinking tea was Mrs. Grow. Mrs. Grow took me back to school and said I should try something different. She offered me the chance to write a play, and that’s how I got started.”
YellowRobe’s current project is “Thieves,” which opened August 3 at the Public Theater in New York City, and runs through August 14. The play is set at a Brooklyn high school powwow and deals with the absurdities of urban Indians’ dual existence. YellowRobe says that “Thieves” was inspired by all the publicity from a few years ago about identity theft—people having their information from their credit cards stolen. “Why don’t Native people have that?” he laughs. “Our culture has been stolen so much, so many of our items from our cultures have been stolen from us; that’s where the title, ‘Thieves,’ comes from. Basically what happens is that you have this man whose name is Quick, who is a vendor at powwows and gatherings. He gets together with a real shady friend of his, Henry, who winds up stealing a Sundance bundle that they’re going to sell at this gathering of new agers.”
When asked if it’s a comedy or a drama YellowRobe replied, “Well, it’s about Native life, so it’s a little bit of both.”
The production is being presented by American Indian Artists Inc. (AMERINDA) , and the cast features Elizabeth Rolston (Cherokee/Chippewa,) Veracity Butcher, Dylan Carusona (Ojibway/Turtle Clan Oneida,) Neimah Djourabchi, James Fall (Mohican) and Sheri Graubert.
YellowRobe is an Assiniboine playwright, director, poet, actor, writer, and educator; when asked to describe himself he says he considers himself a “Listener.” “That was one of things my grandmother made me do: listen,” he says. “That’s one of things my mother taught me: the listening process, to be able to hear others, other than myself. That’s what I do when I write plays, I hear voices and I hear stories. But I have to be careful too, because there’s a responsibility as to what you can repeat. So I have to be very careful as to what stories I tell, and how I tell them.”
YellowRobe launched his career with a controversial story—a book he did for the 1987 musical “Harvest.” “It was my senior project at the University of Montana,” he says. “It was based on 3 generations of farmers, white farmers, in Montana. I took such heat for writing about white people that when people ask ‘Do you get mad when non-Natives write about Natives?’ I say ‘I can, but I don’t, because Indians got mad when I wrote about white people.”
YellowRobe confesses he’s nervous because this is the first time a Native organization has acted as the co-producer of a play. “It’s the first play written by Native, directed by Native, featuring a Native cast, at a theater of the stature of The Public Theater. It’s a first and, hopefully, it won’t be the last. I’m hoping AMERINDA will come out as a good resource and gets the recognition it deserves for its support of local Native artists here in New York. There are so many tremendous Native actors and artists in the New York area, but they have never gotten the recognition they deserve.”
The process of bringing “Thieves” to the stage only took a year, which YellowRobe notes is pretty quick compared to most productions, which often take two to three years. He describes the process as “basically begging and borrowing and stealing.”
“One of things I was seeing now is a postproduction development process with AMERINDA, so once we get the spotlight on them we can continue to keep them in the light, to keep that presence, that Native American contingent, out there in mainstream American Theater, and let them know that there are Native Theater artists out here.”
YellowRobe is a Libra Professor at the University of Maine and a Faculty Affiliate of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Montana in Missoula. He has completed an anthology of his plays entitled Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers and Other Untold Stories and is the author of Where the Pavement Ends, a collection of his one-act plays.
The Public Theater is located at 425 Lafayette Street in New York City. For more information call 212-967-7555, or visit publictheater.org.