East Coast Native - Theater
Spiderwoman Theater(At the Miami University conference)
The NAWPA conference in 2007, titled “Honoring Spiderwoman Theater/Celebrating Native American Theater,” recognized their continuing creativity and influence and the increased honors given them through productions, reviews, and scholarly books and articles about them.
Here is wording from the 1997 citation for their Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree awards (that is, the words spoken by Provost Anne Hopkins when she awarded the degrees, Feb.25, 1997):
*Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel, Muriel Miguel for two decades you and your sisters of the internationally acclaimed Spiderwoman Theater, have enriched and enlightened the public through your kinetic performances. Your highly original and powerful contributions to the arts have broadened our understanding of Native American culture and provided a forum for the voice of women. Through your teachings, writings, and performances, you have challenged stereotypes and ideologies. Your unique synthesis of multiple traditions--story-weaving, music, poetry, and satire--has helped us recognize the value of diversity. Your collected works, a lifetime of scripts, reviews, correspondence, and related papers, have significantly influenced feminist and avant garde theater. Today we celebrate your highly original and educational art form and the generous gift of your works to Miami’s Native American Women Playwrights Archive.*
Three generations of Native theater.
Muriel Miguel, Murielle Borst,
Monique Mohica , Gloria Miguel
(At the Miami University conference)
Three Generations of Theater.
Monique Mojica is an actor and published playwright from the Kuna and Rappahannock nations. Based in Toronto since 1983, she began training at the age of three and belongs to the second generation spun directly from the web of New York’s Spiderwoman Theater. Her play “Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots” was produced by Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille in 1990, on radio by CBC and published by Women’s Press in 1991. She is the co-editor, with Ric Knowles, of “Staging Coyote’s Dream An Anthology of First Nations Drama in English, vols. I & II” published by Playwrights Canada Press.
Monique is a long-time collaborator with Floyd Favel on various research and performance projects investigating Native Performance Culture. Theatre credits include premieres of: “The Rez Sisters” (Native Earth), “Red River” (Crow’s Theatre) “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God” (Nightwood Theatre/Obsidian/Mirvish) and “Home Is My Road” (Factory Theatre) as well as the one-woman show, “Governor of the Dew” by Floyd Favel (NAC/Globe Theatre) Monique received a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the First Americans in the Arts for her role as Grandma Builds-the-Fire in Sherman Alexie’s film “Smoke Signals”. She is a co-founder of Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble with whom she co-created “The Scrubbing Project” and “The Triple Truth”. Monique was last seen in the role of Caesar in “Death of a Chief”, Native Earth’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Native Earth/NAC) and can currently be seen in the role of Martha on the new series “Rabbit Fall” for APTN.
She was the Artist in Residence for American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois in Spring ’08 and her upcoming projects include “Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way”, a new inter-disciplinary collaboration with Floyd Favel & visual artist Oswaldo DeLeon Kantule.
Monique continues to explore art as healing, as an act of reclaiming historical/cultural memory and as an act of resistance.
Monique Mojica talks about the newly formed Chocolate Woman Collective and her newest project, Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way.
The Chocolate Woman Collective is an inter-disciplinary ad hoc group of senior Aboriginal artists and their collaborators formed to research and create Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way. The Chocolate Woman Collective includes: Kuna visual artist Oswaldo (Achu) DeLeon Kantule as visual artist, design coordinator and cultural consultant, Cree theatre director /dramaturg, Floyd Favel, Erika Iserhoff, a James Bay Cree costume designer and textile artist, Kuna & Rappahannock playwright/performer Monique Mojica, Gloria Miguel, Kuna & Rappahannock, an Elder master actor and founding member of New York’s Spiderwoman Theater.
This project is the continuation of nearly twenty years of Native Performance Culture research initiated by Floyd Favel. The collaborative process of the Chocolate Woman Collective allows its artists to investigate the relationship of the performer’s body with a traditional visual art form and a contemporary visual art form. Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way is rooted in the story narrative of Kuna mola (textile) art and in the literary structures of the pictographic writing that notate Kuna healing chants. It explores the intersection of storytelling with the embodiment of symbolic form and dramatic action. The result is an interrelated textile of imagery, gesture and story across forms and mediums. The performers interact with Oswaldo (Achu) DeLeon Kantule’s paintings on 3’x15’ silk panels of the Grandmothers of Creation. The paintings of these deities are the ensemble of actors. They are living texts, as the performers’ embodiment of them is a living text.
Through this process, by returning to the site of cultural origin — the elemental feminine — a story of healing unfolds.
Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way began with me asking questions about the place on the circle where I chose to begin my work. I had become adept at telling stories from the place of my deepest victimization, my most profound wounding. After a couple of decades of crawling through massacre imagery and examining the genocide that we carry as Indigenous peoples, I asked this question: What stories would I tell if I started from a place of connectedness instead of from a place of rupture? What do I have that is not broken? The answer that came for me is that I am still connected to ChocolateWoman (Puna Siagua) without whom there would be no ceremony, to the Daughters From the Stars (Nis Bundor) for whom each Kuna woman is named and from my Southern Algonquin side, the Rappahannock, I am still connected to Sky Woman and her story of transformation. The elemental feminine is still intact in my cultures and if I connect myself to them, I can pick up missing fragments and create a conscious wholeness of being Tule: a wholeness that propels the art of contemporary Native Performance Culture beyond the victim story.
The title, Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, is to honour the importance of chocolate in Kuna culture and how it translates through visual arts, theatre, mola storytelling, Cree, Spanish, English and popular culture. Red Cacao or PunaSiagua (Chocolate Woman) as her spirit form is known, is sacred medicine. Cacao beans are burned as smudge to purify, pray and heal and they are an important part of the traditional diet. Siagua. Without it many Kuna have developed diabetes and high blood pressure. My exploration for Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way began when I invoked this spirit as abridge to what has not been broken or interrupted by colonization, displacement, and urbanization.
Molas are the traditional textiles of the Kuna nation from the autonomous territory of Kuna Yala in what is known as Panama. My grandfather was a Kuna. Kuna women wear two mola panels — front and back —sewn together to form our blouses. Kuna women are renowned for their skills in creating their designs and combining colour. Originally the designs were painted and tattooed on our bodies, then they evolved to textiles woven from cotton fiber and natural dyes with medicinal properties. Kuna perception, Kuna cosmology, Kuna identity is encoded in the layers of our molas. Another important traditional visual art form is the pictographic writing used to notate Kuna history and healing chants. Molas and pictographs tell stories through abstract imagery and narrative structures specific to the Kuna culture and cosmo vision.
Molas are made by the combined techniques of reverse appliqué, appliqué and embroidery. They require several layers of fabric and the designs are cut out free hand to allow the colours from the layers underneath to show through. Stitching the edges of the designs with the tiniest of stitches is the most fastidious part because it’s what connects the layers. The mola gets thicker and thicker. Sometimes a corner will be torn apart and another colour or pattern of cloth will be inserted. Some areas will be built up with appliqué and details embroidered on. There are no even edges and they are never entirely symmetrical. Even two panels of the same blouse won’t be exactly the same. Ironically, sewing machines were introduced to make Kuna women’s work faster, a more economically sound enterprise. They did make the work faster but these molas are thin with square edges to their designs and inferior overall. It is possible to trace the design of a mola and reproduce its outline but it would lack the multi-dimensional layers of meaning that make it Kuna.
I still have a mola that belonged to my mother before I was born. When I was very small I used to put in on to dance around our apartment. It was too long and fell almost to my knees, it would slip off my shoulders. I always wore it accompanied by a littler ed ballet tutu, and I would dance and create performances all by myself. I’d spend hours dancing in my mola and red tutu to Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Rimsky-Korsakov. As a teenager I was a member of the Oberlin College Modern Dance Company. The very first piece I choreographed, took the shapes, designs, asymmetry and juxtapositions from molas and transformed them into movement.
I’ve never sewn a mola, but I grew up living with them, touching them, tracing their texture and designs, smelling them, sleeping on them and wearing them. It is this thickness, this multi-dimensional knowing applied from the principles of Kuna women’s art that I believe is the centre pole of my writing and following the lead of Spiderwoman Theater, it has become the heart of my theatrical form. And I want that thickness in my work.
Intuitively, unconsciously, I have made molas out of theatre. Forty years later, I want to focus in on the details of this intuitive process rooted in indigenous story narrative on textiles, and place it in the centre of my practice. By deliberately working in this way, I am going back to the site of my origins, to where I began, only now with more experience and more information. My writings and the theatre I create from them are my offerings, my prayers, my healing chants, my history, my identity — my molas.
The initial investigations for Chocolate Woman Dreams the MilkyWay began on November 7, 2007 and it has had one ten-day development workshop that culminated in a staged reading and panel discussion at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario. In September 2008, three members of The Chocolate Woman Collective, Monique Mojica, Oswaldo (Achu) DeLeon Kantule and Erika Iserhoff traveled to Kuna Yala (Panama) to do artistic research in the traditional communities and to conduct a workshop intensive with eight contemporary Kuna artists from diverse disciplines entitled “Dialogues in Indigineity in Contemporary Arts and Performance”. This was a tremendously successful trip and one that we are still digesting. Among the highlights are receiving the enthusiastic support of the administrative chiefs of the Kuna General Congress as well as the excited validation from the traditional cultural teachers, artists and healers that we are working with an appropriate premise from within the principles of the very complex Kuna culture, art and aesthetic. We have built a bridge across which we, as contemporary artists are able to share process as we search for a way to firmly ground ourselves in Aboriginal artistic forms and structures.
A discussion of Red Mother, a one–woman show by Muriel Miguel
Directed by her daughter Murielle Borst.
Muriel Miguel is Kuna/Rappahannock and a founding member and Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theater, the longest running Native American women’s theater company in North America, a company that has toured worldwide for over 30 years.
Muriel is an instructor of Indigenous Performance at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre winter program and Program Director for their summer programs. She was Program Director for the Aboriginal Dance Program at The Banff Centre in summer 2003 and an instructor in Performance for that same program. She has pioneered the teaching of Indigenous Performance through a technique known as “storyweaving” through use of the Laban method of teaching movement.
Choreography & directing credits: Throw Away Kids; She Knew She Was She; the original and touring productions of The Scrubbing Project with Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble; Evening in Paris with co-creator Michelle Olson.
Performance credits include: Philomena Moosetail, The Rez Sisters; Aunt Shadie, The Unnatural and Accidental Women; Spirit Woman, BONES: An Aboriginal Dance Opera. She has also created one woman shows, Hot' N' Soft, Trail of the Otter and Red Mother. Red Mother recently toured to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
Muriel has been awarded an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from Miami University in Oxford, OH. She has most recently been profiled in the book American Women Stage Directors of the 20th Century.
The Theatre Piece
In 2002, I was part of The Aboriginal Brecht Project, initiated by the Aboriginal Arts Program at the Banff Centre. The project explored the theme of justice from a Native point of view. I performed a monologue from Mother Courage and her Children and tried to introduce the idea of how Native people look at war and at genocide and how they cope. Many wars have come and gone but our war still continues. This concept was difficult for the non-Native director to comprehend. One day I appeared in a very bright skirt at rehearsal. I was told it was much too colorful for a war scene. I posed the question “Did you ever see a Native person go to war? We paint our faces, our bodies, our canoes, our horses. We are a very colorful people“. I realized at that moment that I had to create my own theater piece.
Red Mother is an exploration loosely based on the ‘idea’ of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children. Told through the eyes of a Native woman, the story follows Red Mother across North America as she witnesses the rape of the continent and the loss of her way of life. How far must she capitulate to survive? Red Mother charts this struggle for survival of the woman and of the race and maps the persistence of generational memory.
Red Mother is the personification of all the women who are faced with the greatest challenges; the women who are not credited for their convictions but who are active in their own survival and the survival of their children; whose little victories are perceived as failures but who have stayed alive no matter how insurmountable the circumstances. In this regard, Red Mother is about the responsibilities of motherhood and the consequences of failure. These women are heroes too.
I began the development process in 2003, working with Paula Danckert, who is Company Dramaturg and Peter Hinton, Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, to begin formulating the ideas for the piece. That year, I was also chosen as the first Lipinsky resident (feminist-in-residence) at San Diego State University’s Women’s Studies Department. There I had the opportunity to write and explore the structure for the piece in the studio and present a reading. I again worked with dramaturge Paula Danckert in Toronto at the Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival where I explored sound and storytelling technique to begin to find the voice for the piece.
I began my collaboration with my daughter Murielle Borst at the Indian Summer Festival at the American Indian Community House in New York City in 2004. She joined the project as dramaturge, choreographer and director. We had had a long history of working together, usually with me as the director. From my experience teaching Native students, I have learned that listening to what is important to them is a necessary part of my learning. So, I felt it was important for me to continue working with the next generation, to bring a new eye to Red Mother. It seemed like it was an organic transition to bring my daughter in as the director to continue the legacy of Spiderwoman Theater and to continue the work of my generation through her generation.
In 2006, urban ink productions/ fathom labs supported continued development in a workshop production in Vancouver. At the time of this production, Native composer Russell Wallace and Native graphic designer Tania Willard were integrated into the process. I believe that it is essential that the total vision for Red Mother be supported by the work of other Native artists.
This piece weaves Native stories of genocide with humor, music and dance; Brechtian themes with demon and ghost stories that are part of the Kuna creation stories, all creating a multilayered narrative of pain and loss with a limitless hope for the generations to come.
Murielle Borst ( Kuna/Rappahannock) is also a professional actress and writer. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre and Dance from Long Island University. She studied acting at Uta Hagen’s HB Studio and with Spiderwoman Theater in New York City. She has worked with I Giullari di Piazza, a traditional Italian performance group that works in Neapolitan and Sicilian stories and music. where she interpreted traditional Italian myths into English, as well as creating original myths using traditional methods of Native Storytelling, In 2000, her one woman show, More than Feathers and Beads was presented at the Global Indigenous Theater Festival, sponsored by the 2000 Summer Olympic Games and produced at the Sydney Opera House.
When I first worked on this piece fours years ago in New York City, I was not the director but choreographer and consultant. I was later asked to be the director of the piece in Vancouver. There are many reasons that I took on this project. The first and the most important is that I come from the same theatrical background as Muriel Miguel, well since she after all is my mother! I apprenticed with Spiderwoman Theater during my undergraduate work and was directed by Muriel Miguel later in my career. We have worked with one another for many pieces and in many different levels of theatre, from editing to mentoring. So our directing styles are quite similar.
What attracted me later to this piece was that I loved the idea that we could do it as comedy since I come from a comedic background. Taking the Brechetian themes and weaving them with Native stories of genocide but with humor because like all Native genre related themes there is always a great deal of pain involved that is intertwined with humor.
Later after we seen the humor in Red Mother, I started to see it as different types of Ghost and Demon stories. Demons that are part of the Mythology in Kuna creation stories and then taking those stories and using war and mother ghost stories.
This piece is also about the craven women who live in Native society who are not noble mothers but the failed ones. The ones whose spirits linger because they are not
rested because of the death of their children or the abuse they have caused and never made amends. But these women do exist whether we like it or not because native women and native people in general have been dehumanized by making us noble and not showing our human side which fails but that is also part of our survival over the centuries. Red Mother also is about the responsibility of motherhood and the consequences of it not being taken seriously.
A lot of times I am asked the question is it hard to go from writing, acting and then directing. And the answer I always have is no. It is one and the same to me especially when working with Muriel Miguel. The one technique that I learned from not only her but Spiderwoman Theater is the process of the story. The story the most important thing. As a director yeah, you can have smoke and mirrors with a rock show. But if you only are looking at the set and design than the story is just not there. The first thing I always look at is the story.
When directing my mother, she as an actor uses this same process as me. She identifies the movement from heaviness to the lightness. We are looking for the organic continuity; we both are looking for the kernel, the source, the objective. We both are trying to get to the same place at the same time. Both of us are trying to get to the core of the story and the core of the character. To tell the same story. One as an actor, one as a director. The writing is the first layer to all of this. You cannot put on a good play without a good story. That is why storytelling is so important to Native People because the story is the most important thing. As a director it is my job to make sure that story is told at the best of my ability. It is the writer’s job to give birth to the character and story, it is the actor’s job to breathe life in the character and mine as the director to midwife it through.
The other question that is asked me is; do I like working in the abstract? And the answer to that is of course I do, if I didn’t I wouldn’t be directing my mother! She has an abstract mind as she was an abstract mother. It is one of the same. But if you really think about it, she really isn’t too abstract. What Indian mother from the sixties could afford not to be abstract to raise their kids so they would be successful. My mother like almost all Native mothers are not the norm nor the mainstream. Her work echoes the revolution of the 60’s. The echo of her struggle as a Native Woman and those who did not make it or made it but failed dramatically.
The other question that is often asked and that is; is it difficult to work with the concepts about failed motherhood with your own mother. And to answer that question, no, not at all. It’s not therapy for Christsakes! But it made me give her a little bit of break about my childhood. She always said that Joan Crawford or Lana Turner could be my mother when I gave her a hard time. And after doing this piece with her I realized that things could be bad but they could have been worse. That a love that a mother has for her child is profound. It is never broken, not even in death.
For further information regarding The Miguel family, Spiderwoman Theater and celebration of three generations of Native Theater.
New Book about Native American Theater:
Performing Worlds into Being: Native American Women's Theater.
Ed. Ann Elizabeth Armstrong, Kelli Lyon Johnson, and William A. Wortman.
Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Press, 2009.
Includes illustrations and a DVD.
Following a/their very successful conference in February 2007, the organizers announce the forthcoming publication of plays, papers, interviews, and case studies: Performing Worlds into Being: Native American Women's Theater (Miami University Press, 2009).
The book contains:
--An edited version of Murielle Borst’s lively conference talk (or lecture) about Spiderwoman Theater’s legacy titled “Spiderwoman Theater’s Legacy” is included in Section II, “Honoring Spiderwoman Theater,” for the forthcoming book, Performing worlds into Being: Native American Women’s Theater (edited by Ann Elizabeth Armstrong, Kelli Lyon Johnson, and William A. Wortman; published by Miami University Press, 2009). Ms. Borst emphasizes the importance of theatrical technique and describes the nature of Spiderwoman’s unique technique, and she discusses the influence of this technique on her own one-woman piece, “More than Feathers and Beads,” and on her fantasy fiction, from which she reads excerpts. Concluding her presentation, she and Monique Mojica performed a new five-minute work Murielle had just written, “A Valentine for My Grandmother.” --plays and poems by Marie Annharte Baker, Diane Glancy, Marcie Rendon, Dianne Yeahquo Reyner, and Spiderwoman Theater (Persistence of Memory);
--interviews with Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, Spiderwoman Theater, the founders of Thunder Road Theater, and two Quileute dancers;
--articles and comment by Murielle Borst, Jill Carter, Ric Knowles, Monique Mojica, JudyLee Oliva, and Christy Stanlake.
--artist statements by Diane Glancy, Monique Mojica, and Dianne Yeahquo Reyner.
Topics covered include, along with the achievement and influence of Spiderwoman Theater, Native American theater in Tulsa, Minneapolis, and Hawaii, in the community, and in the mainstream (the premier of JudyLee Oliva's Te Ata), and there is specific focus on Kneubuhl's The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu, Mojica's Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, Spiderwoman Theater's Persistence of Memory, and Oliva's Te Ata.
Although most of the contributions in this collection were originally presented at 2007 conference, titled "Honoring Spiderwoman Theater/Celebrating Native American Theater," all have been updated or revised and then edited and arranged so that this book stands independent of the conference. The title is taken from the opening essay by Monique Mojica and Ric Knowles in which they celebrate the power of words, the potential of creating new and possible worlds, and the performativity of Native art and invoke many of the themes that appear throughout the rest of the volume: transformation, creation, community, participation, healing, and hope. They advocate for participation and collaboration in these processes, and they particularly emphasize relationship and responsibility, exploring the relationships between Native authors and academics, between artists and archives. The 2007 conference was sponsored by the Native American Women Playwrights Archive and Miami University's Department of Theatre, and it brought together some forty participants from four countries and a dozen or more Indian nations, presented three stage productions and a staged reading, and offered an array of public discussions, production histories, academic papers, interviews, and performance pieces, along with communal meals and conversation. We celebrated Native American theater not only by talking about it but also by doing it.
NAWPA—the Native American Women Playwrights Archive--was founded in 1997 in the Miami University (Ohio) Libraries to collect, preserve, and make more widely known the work of living Native American women playwrights of Canada, Mexico, Central and Caribbean, Pacific Islands, and the U.S. It now consists of manuscript plays, production documents (posters, publicity, programs, some video and audiotapes, reviews, and news stories), and related miscellaneous materials such as photographs, award citations, and other publications by the writers. This material is housed in the Miami University Libraries’ Walter Havighurst Special Collections Library where it is stored in archival boxes and managed according to archival standards. The NAWPA website—http://staff.lilb.muohio.edu/nawpa/--maintains a directory of the writers and lists their plays, their other work, and related materials and publications. This website also includes bibliographies of Native American drama, some digitized resources, related links, and information about contacting the Archive. We hope in coming years to increase greatly the number of writers included and encourage new voices, record new productions, and stimulate continued--and vitally important--theatrical writing. This is a living archive and inquiries (through the website) from interested playwrights are very definitely welcome.
The Native American Women Playwrights Archive link is http://staff.lib.muohio.edu/nawpa, and for Spiderwoman specifically there are these sub-sites:
--Bibliography of plays and comment: http://staff.lib.muohio.edu/nawpa/st.php
--Photos of our exhibit of some of the materials in the collection: http://staff.lib.muohio.edu/nawpa/ste.php
For further reading of Native writers is Staging Coyote’s Dream: An Anthology of First Nations Drama, Volume II. The editors are Monique Mojica and Ric Knowles.
Here is a list of contributors, and the plays that we’re including:
Murielle Borst: More Than Feathers and Beads
Shirley Cheechoo: Path With No Moccasins
Marie Clements: Burning Vision
Joseph Dandurand: Do Not Touch the Indians
Floyd Favel: Governor of the Dew
Margo Kane: Confessions of an Indian Cowboy
Muriel Miguel: Trail of the Otter
Daniel David Moses: The Indian Medicine Show
Yvette Nolan: Annie Mae's Movement
Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble: The Scrubbing Project
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