Those who follow American Theatre’s Facebook page (and if you don’t already, what are you waiting for?) may have noticed that one of the most lively and persistent commenters is Bill Yellow Robe, and that the recurring theme of his comments is Native American theatre and culture.
This is no mistake, since William S. Yellow Robe Jr., who currently teaches storytelling and Native American literature as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine, is among the preeminent Native American theatre artists working today. His play Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers—staged in the 2005-’06 season by Minneapolis’s Penumbra Theatre Company and Trinity Rep of Providence, R.I.—prompted no less a figure than Public Theatre artistic director Oskar Eustis to rave: “I think William is really one of the great American playwrights—he has an extraordinary body of work created over the past 20 years.” The Public also recently produced a staged reading of a newer play by Yellow Robe, Theives: in the red way, in association with the New York-based company AmerIndian.
Not surprisingly, Yellow Robe’s body of work (more than 40 plays, and more on the way) has dealt primarily with Native American and Indian issues and characters—though as the title of his best-known play indicates, he’s interested in a broader inquiry into American history’s less glorious chapters. “Buffalo Soldiers,” after all, was the nickname for African-American troops the U.S. Cavalry sent into battle against Native Americans in the late 19th century, and Yellow Robe’s play follows the complicated homecoming of a man who has both black and Indian grandparents. Talk about deep-seated internal conflict.
Not that Yellow Robe delves exclusively into colonial and postcolonial themes. One of his newer projects, Wood Bones, “deals with the spirit of a house,” he said in a recent interview. “Once you leave it, what is left?” Another project addresses gender roles: “I’m trying to develop a piece about the difference between being tough, which is being able to survive, and being mean, which is to be vicious and spiteful, and how people confuse the two. The working title is Indian Men Are Men, Indian Woman Are Tough. I mean, for instance, women can actually give birth to children; we men can’t endure pain like that.”
How did this native of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, from the Assiniboine tribe, get involved in theatre in the first place? A non-Indian professor, Dr. Rolland Meinholtz—who had been among the first instructors at New Mexico’s Institute of American Indian Arts—had Yellow Robe as a student at the University of Montana, and taught him playwriting, acting and directing. Yellow Robe also credits fellow artists as mentors: John Kauffman, who worked variously at Honolulu Theatre for Youth, Empty Space Theatre and Red Earth Performing Arts (the latter two in Seattle), and Hanay Geiogamah of the Native American Ensemble Theatre. Yellow Robe initially saw theatre simply as “a way to get the name of my tribe out there and let people know it’s still around—just to honor my folks. I’m very proud of where I was raised. Some people hear my stories of life on the reservation and say, ‘You’re proud of that?’ And I say, ‘Yes, these people endure so much and yet still know how to celebrate with each other. There’s a strength and a warmth among them that I have not encountered anywhere else.”
Over time, though, theatre has come to mean something even more radical and personal to Yellow Robe.
“People often ask me, ‘Who is your audience?’ I tell them, I’m writing for the story itself. Within native life, certain conditions are so overwhelming that it’s hard to focus on them. It’s like asking, ‘Why do the Irish drink?’ That’s hard to explain. I’ve always heard that native people hate white people. It’s not hate; it’s confusion.”
In short, he says, “Theatre is a peaceful means of bringing about decolonization and justice for indigenous people, and to talk about issues like enrollment, blood quantum, the environment. Theatre gives us a chance to explore these topics without fear of retribution or violence.”
Odd as it may seem, a social media tool like Facebook is also a way for Yellow Robe to make his voice heard and to connect—and reconnect—with his people. Native Americans, he believes, may be uniquely suited to the challenges of a globalized culture.
“Here’s the thing: Native people have had the world come to our door. We didn’t ask for it, but now we’re related to so many different tribes and people,” Yellow Robe says. “It’s that openness and vastness that makes Native America strong. We are now related to the world.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre magazine. He also co-runs the site StageGrade.com and is father to a strapping infant named Oliver.
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