The Art of Translation: Native American Theatre in the Global Community
The Art of Translation:
Native American Theatre in the Global Community
By Rhiana Yazzie (Navajo)
As an emerging playwright, in the spring of 2004 I was fortunate to have the opportunity through the California Arts Council, for my one-act play, The Long Flight, to be translated into Spanish and given a staged reading for an international audience at the 30th International Theatre Institute’s World Congress in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The experience not only broadened my view of world theatre but also my understanding of the role theatre plays in specific communities. It also brought to mind questions about the forms that Indigenous theatre comes in and why it is so often involves artistic statements as well as political ones. As a writer who often deals with ethnic specific themes and cultural clashes, this trip was helpful in offering me alternative ways to view cultural exchange on both an artistic and personal level.
While in Tampico, I had an opportunity to meet with a variety of theatre professionals from around the world including a few from the United States. However, most of my days were spent with the group of artists and interpreters involved with the presentation of my staged reading that was sandwiched between two other plays, one from Mexico and another from Croatia.
Upon arrival in Tampico, I was greeted at the airport by Allejandra, the young woman who was to become a wonderful friend and asset to me and my director, Randy Reinholz, Artistic Director of Native Voices Theatre in Los Angeles, as she provided a bridge of communication for both the language and the culture of Tamaulipas. I ought to have taken a bit more time to read up about the weather in Tampico; as soon as I stepped out of the plane my thick cotton shirt nearly became unbearable to wear in the near 100 percent humidity.
Once I got to the hotel, I met Beatrice, one of the key conference organizers, who got me involved in the conference’s activities from the very first night. She took me out to the main square where there was a “variety show” taking place on a large outdoor stage. From this, I got a hint of the kinds of theater that is produced in the Tampico area. A woman performing a monologue about the famous soldadera (female soldier), La Adelita, was followed by two dance performances: one a modern dance interpretation and the second a light hearted jazz number featuring women in bright neon wigs and nurses uniforms. I wasn’t sure if the last piece was a community service tool or a straight out farce but I was excited about its grassroots nature and the involvement of the community.
Though the humidity still had not broken and there was no breeze that night, hundreds of locals came out to watch the show in the square. There was a variety of people present who gave me the impression that Tampico was a community that supported the arts in a way that made it a part of their everyday lives, in contrast with the way many Americans view it as a hobby. There were families sitting together that represented at least three generations, couples enjoying a night out, as well as amateur and professional artists. It was a perfect night for me to get to understand the variety I could expect from the conference’s schedule as well as the city and people of Tampico.
During that first night in Tampico, I began to meet other participants in the conference. At dinner, I ran into Elvis and Neni, the Croatian playwright and his director who would also be presenting a piece in the same program as I. I believed that they viewed this opportunity as a chance to show a world theatre audience the work that was happening in Croatia. And it was not too long after that when I met Lorena and Manuel, the Mexican playwright and her director. It seemed that they were taking this opportunity to network, in order to get her piece produced in another venue.
Most of my nine days in Tampico were spent with the artists from Croatia and Mexico. To me, they seemed to be from the opposite sides of the spectrum when it came to working styles. While the Croatian director often had very specific requests from the organizers not always easy to address, for example longer rehearsal periods and various rehearsal spaces, the Mexican director and playwright (who seemed at times more interested in everyone else’s rehearsals than her own) seemed to pull off a very highly technical production of the reading without much effort or notice—from me at least.
Between the three teams of writers and directors I was able to observe the differences in approach to the execution of the play readings. I felt that my director’s technique lay somewhere between the rigorous requirements set by the Croatian director and the more accommodating style set by the Mexican director. All experts in their fields, I wondered if perhaps the way the art was viewed in the representative cultures had, in turn, a parallel effect on the expectations and approaches to their presentations?
All the artists were eager to learn about the other’s projects. Everyone involved in the staged readings exchanged scripts and hours of conversation about our differing theatrical philosophies. I learned that the Croatians viewed their theatre—a state supported institution—as a way to preserve their culture through years of political upheaval and turmoil. I then began to gather more understanding of why their expectations of the organizers and the presentation were so high, for them this was not only a presentation—and perhaps a validation—of their art, but in a way, also of their culture. Randy and I viewed the reading as both an opportunity to learn more about my play and about the possibility of exposing a world audience to a Native American voice in theatre. In conversations with various artists from around the world attending the conference, I realized that the art of playwriting itself also differed dramatically from country to country, especially when the message of a play has political undertones. This idea cemented after seeing different reactions to my play based on where the reader was from. Artists more closely tied to the Western world contrasted greatly to artists who held a more Indigenous perspective.
After reading a copy of The Long Flight, the Croatian playwright and director decided that the play was too overtly political. The piece deals with the metaphor of colonization and the effect it was having on one particular present day Navajo man. I was taken off guard by their comment because just the day before they were proudly buying Emiliano Zapata souvenir T-shirts and joking with power-to-the-people fists in the air. Aware of the political situation in Eastern Europe and some of the plays that have come out of that world, I wondered, “How could this be too political for them?” However, revolution has different meanings for everyone based on what country you are from and the history that dictates your present position. This would be clearly demonstrated in the contrasting reactions of the Tampican actors who would eventually read my play.
Any fears I had still had lingering from the Croatian pep talk, completely vanished by the end of the morning. I walked into the best-case scenario that any playwright could imagine for a first read through! After the actors finished the last line of the play they actually jumped up and cheered and kissed me; my interpreter even showed me the goose bumps on her arms! Our actors bombarded Randy and me with questions about Native Americans and U.S. history, as well as American acting techniques as they immersed themselves in the world of the play. Randy and I could not have been more shocked and overjoyed by this sudden community the play had formed for us.
After that great ego boost, I tried to figure out why there were such opposite reactions to my play. It seemed that an Indigenous voice speaking for itself was a revolutionary concept to the Mexican actors. According to introductions the first day of rehearsal, the actors represented a good cross section of the mestizo people (those with Spanish and American Indian heritage) living in Tamaulipas—varying from apparent stronger European roots to more dominant Native influence. They were very aware of the economic and class differences between the Indigenous and Spanish peoples in the country and each knew where they fit in according to their genetic roots. Because of the strong Native influence on culture, architecture and language I saw in Mexico, I thought that there would be a louder Indigenous theatre voice, but judging by conversations with my actors and the mainstage performances presented during the conference—Moliere’s The Doctor in Spite of Himself, the ballet Carmina Burana, and the famous Mexican play, Joan the Mad Queen—it is still an area yet to be explored.
It became clear that my play is definitely a voice that originates from this continent and a voice that does not often have a chance to speak. That, I think, was the key. My actors were joyous from seeing their thoughts, their concerns and their realities being expressed on stage for the first time. Never before had they seen an Indigenous man be the hero of any story outside of family yarns and histories, let alone, presented in a mainstream venue like this.
Perhaps in a world where aggressors have the ability to speak the same language, have similar cultural values, and can look at each other’s same colored eyes across battle lines, subtly is a stronger approach to making political artistic statements. However, in a country that was formed through conquest and the domination of a foreign ethnic group over another, a more overt and pointed message is needed to express the emotions of anger and loss in its art.
I am aware that when many Native people begin careers as writers, it is no surprise that our pieces tend to be political and can often be angry. I would be shocked if they weren’t, simply because the reality today is that Native people are still fighting to be recognized as human beings and not the stereotypes that are still being embraced in the mainstream. I had written The Long Flight nearly six years ago as one of my first plays. I look back on it now as a vital part of my evolution as a writer. Today, I do go for subtlety and try to find those stories that speak about relevant and contemporary Native issues rather than trying to proselytize the world about the evils of colonization. Though that is a dark part of history that never strays too far from mind, once I found my writing voice, I no longer needed the validation of that birthright anger.
Maybe if my experience as a writer is somehow a microcosm for political theatre and the evolution of art from oppressed peoples, then I can see why I received such varying opinions on the play’s content. The message in this play will not have the same effect on a group of people who have been warring with those that share their own ancestry. It’s just not the same kind of fight. Perhaps this is why when art is created what is most important is that it is first for us—and then if it translates, it can be for others too. The play’s American Indigenous voice most likely would translate in any country whose people are dealing with a common history of colonization.
Though my stay in Mexico was not long enough to answer all the questions this experience raised about culture and theatre, it did give me a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of it through the eyes of world theatre artists and it gave me inspiration to continue my work as a Native American playwright.
Rhiana Yazzie is a Navajo playwright based in Los Angeles. In May 2006, she will be presenting her new play Wild Horses, with Native Voices Theatre at the Autry, in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices theatre program.