Tribal nature and 'Palestine, New Mexico'
Bonds are forged and cultural issues examined as the cast of Richard
Montoya's new play tackle such topics as the U.S. military, Native
American history and war.
By Reed Johnson
December 19, 2009
Tribal thinking and tribal identity factor heavily in Richard
Montoya's new play "Palestine, New Mexico," running through Jan. 24
at the Mark Taper Forum.
There's the close-knit tribe otherwise known as the U.S. military. An
American Indian tribe that must deal with the loss of one of its
sons, Pfc. Ray Birdsong, killed in Afghanistan under mysterious
circumstances. The tribal intrigues of the Taliban forces sowing
mayhem throughout Central Asia.
There's even an allusion to the lost tribes of Israel -- and to the
diaspora that brought Jews from Europe to the American Southwest --
in Montoya's comedic drama, in which strands of Chicano, Jewish and
Native American history are knotted together in one thick, complex braid.
So when director Lisa Peterson convened the play's cast on the first
day of rehearsals several weeks ago, she gamely asked each member to
say "what tribe you think you might come from."
Well, actor Russell Means, an Ogala Sioux and longtime Indian rights
activist, told Peterson, that's a word that we don't use, actually.
"It's demeaning, and every time the white world talks about American
Indians they use all the demeaning words they can to describe us,
like we're nothing," Means said in an interview this week with
Peterson, Montoya and two other Indian cast members, Geraldine Keams
and Brandon Oakes.
Yet as the rehearsal process and the production unfolded, the
performers agreed, the word "tribe" took on many deep and respectful
shadings, of "family," "community" and the comradely bonds forged
among a group of artists drawn together for a brief moment onstage.
Not only the play's characters but the production team and cast
became a tribe, of sorts.
"It feels like we are all here together in this screwed-up world that
we're trying to make right," said Means, who had never done live
theater before. "Like Lisa pointed out to us, everyone's lost in the
play. And they're trying to find their way. And we're a tribe. A
tribe of people."
The pitfalls of cultural misunderstanding and the risks, as well as
potential rewards, of venturing outside one's comfort zone into alien
terrain, form the play's thematic heart. "Palestine, New Mexico" is
named for the fictional town where the earnest U.S. Army Capt.
Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter) comes looking for answers about
Birdsong, who was one of her soldiers, and ends up getting pulled
into a series of personal and romantic intrigues, a feud between
neighboring rival reservations and a peyote-induced dream redolent of
Carlos Castaneda as interpreted by Federico Fellini, with an assist
from Looney Tunes.
The cast includes Montoya and his artistic brothers-in-arms Ric
Salinas and Herbert Siguenza of Culture Clash, the L.A.-based
Latino-vaudevillian-agitprop ensemble marking its 25th anniversary season.
Writing several dramatic parts for American Indian actors, and
setting his play on a reservation, presented some major challenges in
terms of researching his subject and depicting it with sensitivity,
Montoya acknowledged. That included the use of the concept of tribe.
"I think we always meant it as 'family,' " Montoya said. "It's a
loaded word, like 'Hispanic' is a loaded word. The Nixon
administration came up with that term, precisely to get us away from
our Indian-ness. They said, 'Remind these Latino people they're
Spanish, they're not Indian.' "
Peterson, who also directed Culture Clash's "Water & Power" at the
Taper in 2006, said that plays such as "Palestine, New Mexico"
intrepidly go against certain "expectations in art, and especially in
the theater, that people should write within their parameters."
"I think there is a movement in the theater right now, especially led
by, for lack of a better word, writers of color, writers who are
defined by their ethnicities, and also writers who are identified by
their gender, to break out of that, to say, 'No, I can go where my
imagination and my interests take me,' " she added. "But it is risky."
Perhaps especially when depicting one of the most misrepresented and
cruelly stereotyped of all U.S. ethnic groups.
"One of the traps would have been, OK, we're depicting this rez and
it must be positive," Montoya said. "Because we get that in the
Latino, mostly movie and television world, 'We must project positive
images.' And I think we do feel like, yes, there's something
important about that. But when I look at how complicated a rez or a
tribe can be with traditional folks versus this casino movement
versus there's some abject poverty. . . . There was one rez in New
Mexico where there were 16 heroin overdoses."
The play's liberal mixing of ideas, cultural topographies and comedic
and dramatic styles has divided reviewers. Times critic Charles
McNulty called it "an odd mash-up of a work." Variety's Bob Verini
wrote of "the show's ungainly amalgam of outrageous imagery and
serious subtext." But, Verini added, "at only 80 minutes, it never
wears out its welcome, and its very earnestness conveys a brotherhood
message not inappropriate to this holiday season."
Means said that finding humor in the most dire circumstances is
highly characteristic of both Indians and Chicanos, whom he grew up
with in San Leandro, Calif. ("I was a Low Rider without a ride.")
"The worst things can be happening but we can joke about it," Means
said. "Like I'll never forget inside Wounded Knee back in '72," he
continued, referring to the 71-day siege in Wounded Knee, S.D., in
the winter of 1972-73, during which two American Indian Movement
members were killed and a U.S. marshal was paralyzed. "We had all
those news people there . . . and they were forced to leave, but when
they [left they] told us, 'You guys keep your humor and your wit.'
And they were right."
Keams, a Navajo professional storyteller who plays the wise,
wise-cracking medicine woman Maria 15 (pronounced "quince"), said she
believes that her role, although specifically Indian, belongs to a
universal sorority of archetypal matriarchs.
"There's a Maria 15 in every family," Keams said. "She's very down to
earth, very practical. And then when she wants to kick butt she'll
kick butt. She's like the Earth Mother."
To Oakes, the play accurately reflects two aspects of the culture he
knew from being raised as a Mohawk: the casual presence of firearms,
which are wielded en masse at Capt. Siler when she traipses onto the
rez in the play's opening minutes; and the disproportionate
participation of Indians in the U.S. military, bearing arms on behalf
of the nation that subjugated them.
"When I was like 7 to 9 there was a war on my reservation between the
New York State Police and my neighbor, the head of the Mohawk
warriors," Oakes said. "Guns to me are just like a tool that's to
show part of your emotion and how you feel, like I feel strong enough
to pull out a gun and hold it in my hand."
As far as Indians' relation to the U.S. military, Oakes said, his
grandfather had served with pride during World War II, but never
encouraged his grandson to enlist. The warrior ideal, Oakes
indicated, is still a powerful symbol to many young Indian men.
"There was a moment in my life where I was about to become a Marine,"
he said. "I just thought it'd be a great workout! That's how I looked
at it back then. And I was afraid of the haircut too. So I went to
art school instead."
Means, following his own brushes with violence as a younger man,
today has an emphatically negative view of taking up weapons, a
vestige of what he called the "patriarchal world" of "caveman thinking."
"If we look at the world today, and we look at the chaos and the
turmoil and the wars and the violence that come from tribal kind of
thinking," she said. "So tribe, to me, in that way, can be full of
misunderstanding. And we've got to get past that. And we're not
living in those worlds anymore. We have to move on to a new place."
Palestine, New Mexico
(Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles; 724 seats; $65 top)
Dec. 14, 2009
By BOB VERINI
A Center Theater Group presentation for Culture Clash of a play in
one act by Richard Montoya. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Sets, Rachel
Hauck; costumes, Christopher Acebo; lighting and projections,
Alexander V. Nichols; original music and sound, Paul James
Prendergast; production stage manager, Susie Walsh. Opened, reviewed
Dec. 13, 2009. Runs through Jan. 24, 2010. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.
Capt. Catherine Siler - Kirsten Potter
Bronson - Ric Salinas
Top Hat - Richard Montoya
Farmer - Herbert Siguenza
Maria 15 - Geraldine Keams
Chief Birdsong - Russell Means
Dacotah, Girl in Blue Dress - Julia Jones
Ghost of Birdsong, Suarez - Justin Rain
During the hallucinogenic climax of "Palestine, New Mexico" - the new
Mark Taper Forum commission from Culture Clash - an Army captain
sharing her combat flashbacks from Afghanistan suddenly conjures up
Elvis in Arab robes from "Harum Scarum," as a giant cactus puppet
strides in like John Wayne. The campy moment sums up the show's
ungainly amalgam of outrageous imagery and serious subtext. Yet, at
only 80 minutes, it never wears out its welcome, and its very
earnestness conveys a brotherhood message not inappropriate to this
Kirsten Potter endeavors to find dimensionality in her stock role as
Capt. Siler, a disillusioned warrior seeking closure and redemption
in the New Mexico desert's red rock hills, ancestral home of a
deceased PFC under her Kabul command. Ray Birdsong died mysteriously
while under suspicion of treasonous dealings with the enemy; another
GI from these parts, Suarez (Justin Rain), is AWOL and may have been involved.
Having traveled thousands of miles (Potter could work on the heat and
exhaustion) to be surrounded once again by hostile faces and wielded
guns, Capt. Siler believes only Ray's father (Russell Means), the
local tribal chief, can pull away the veils of uncertainty. And in
passing he may be able to help with her own father issues.
Though "Palestine" summons up any number of tribal culture clashes
including the Jewish diaspora (note ironic title), as a dramatic
event it's paper-thin, and helmer Lisa Peterson doesn't exactly
ratchet up the suspense. Still, she leaves room for a gallery of
pungent and often moving character portraits: Geraldine Keams' tribal
medico evoking "South Pacific"'s Bloody Mary; Herbert Siguenza's
slow-witted but good-hearted lawman; Julia Jones' delicate Dacotah,
the widow Birdsong aching for answers.
Room is also set aside for far too much silliness, notably when
Culture Clashers Siguenza, Ric Salinas and playwright Richard Montoya
dodder in as geriatric Three Stooges for a pointless convocation of
But the troupe shows admirable restraint in not overindulging their
penchant for semi-improvised off-topic zingers. (The cheap Tiger
Woods joke, however, ought to go.)
And all the buildup to the chief's entrance is justified by Means'
enormous gravitas and authenticity. Like the character he plays,
Means is a man of his time who seems eminently in touch with those of
earlier times, his own '70s involvement with the American Indian
Movement movingly evoked in the chief's reminiscences.
Palestine" is complicated but thematically quite simple: there's hope
for solving all manner of tribal conflicts, on this side of the globe
and every other. Through sheer sincerity, Peterson and the Clashers
convey a peace on earth/good will to men message other so-called
"Christmas shows" would envy -- one especially welcome as a troubled
2009 fades into history.
Beyond the projections in the psychedelic vision quest, Alexander V.
Nichols creates numerous stunning effects against and atop Rachel
Hauck's sturdy arrangement of stone and sky.