Sicangu Lakota Nation member Larissa FastHorse has a knack for making history. This 2020 MacArthur genius grant recipient can boast a few significant firsts: the first Native woman playwright to be produced on Broadway with The Thanksgiving Play, which opened at the Helen Hayes Theater this past spring. The first Native playwright to make it onto American Theatre’s Top 10 Most-Produced Plays list. And now, along with Ojibwe and Oneida Nations theatremaker Ty Defoe, she is making more history with For the People, which, when it begins its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis later this week, will be the first Native-authored work to be produced on the Guthrie mainstage in its 60-year history.
FastHorse and Defoe have worked together on many projects, including some at the Guthrie (2017’s Water Is Sacred, 2019’s From the Drum), and as co-founders of the arts consulting firm Indigenous Direction. On For the People, they are bringing barrels of giddiness to the play, a comedy about a 20-something fighting for grant money to create a wellness center for the Twin Cities’ Indigenous community. An emphasis on laughter was a very strong request from the Minneapolis Native community, namely the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations, who contributed heavily to the play’s development.
FastHorse and Defoe set aside some time ahead of the play’s Oct. 7 premiere to answer some questions about their process and excitement level. They spoke of the thrills they’ve experienced building a stage narrative along with the Twin Cities Indigenous population, what has clicked between them within the collaborative process, and how laughter can be a great healer.
DAVID JOHN CHÁVEZ: What are some things that get you excited about telling this particular story?
LARISSA FASTHORSE: It’s an extension of the work we’ve been doing with the Guthrie over the past six years or more, in that we are working with the local Indigenous community. With each step we were asking, “What do you want next from the Guthrie, and what is the next thing the Guthrie could provide?” This story and production came out of requests directly from the community to create a piece that’s about them. That it is now on the mainstage in a full production is very much informed by all those years of work we did together.
TY DEFOE: Some of the most exciting things are the experiences and stories around Indigenous wellness having the power to heal generations of trauma. Sometimes laughter is the medicine needed to bring peace to our people. I am excited about the futuristic thinking our main character is grappling with, how to bring the past and present together for her own people to give back.
The play’s lead character, April Dakota, has trouble securing funding for her wellness center. What are some specific challenges Native people face when it comes to things like support for their health and well-being?
Larissa: There are lots of challenges, for sure. The thing that was important is that the community actually asked that this would be a comedy. They told us they wanted to be seen with laughter and humor. That was a really consistent request, that this show was meant to be about Native joy. It is a satire, so we do bring up issues around funding and the ridiculous hoops we’re asked to jump through, of not being Native enough or being too traditional, too urban, too old. All these things come up when we are dealing with organizations, institutions, and money for our programs. This is a comedy. First and foremost, we want people to have fun, because the base of our culture as Native people is humor, comedy, and laughter.
Ty: Both intentional and unintentional colonial-designed systems in the U.S. make access to funding challenging for Native/Indigenous people. Some of those challenges are cultural and ethical differences.
What does it mean to tell this story specifically in the Twin Cities? I understand that’s where the commission came from, but in the description of the play, it talks about navigating life specifically in the Twin Cities.
Ty: Mni Sóta Maḳoce is sacred to the Dakota people. Other Native/Indigenous tribes and nations have migrated to the Twin Cities for decades for work, school, and families by forced removal, disposition of land, and/or creating something new. Telling this story here on this land asks questions about what it means to be a contemporary urban Native person in a city and to still hold one’s own culture with respect for future generations to come. Franklin Ave. is a historic place local to the area that has been a cultural connector among many for years and for many people across Turtle Island.
Larissa: It’s set on Franklin Ave., which is well known and beloved within the Indigenous community. To be able to premiere this show there where it came from means everything. In addition, to be able to be the very first Native written show on the Guthrie mainstage stage is such an honor for Ty and I, even though we are from adjacent communities, not in the Twin Cities.
As those who make your living telling stories, what is something about this particular production that you are doing differently from traditional ways that stories are told? As collaborators, were there things in your approach that forced you to challenge yourselves within the style and form of your story?
Larissa: I am very much about process. Although my plays are often written in collaboration with a community and with our director, Michael John Garcés, this is my first time co-writing a full-length production with Ty. This is in addition to those above collaborators, so we had to create a piece that performs like a “good play” while also giving room for input. That’s where the repeated meeting format came into play for this story. It both moves the piece forward in a structure of plot and time, but the meetings can morph quite a bit as we get more ideas from community. Then we just have to make it funny, which is something all of us feel very comfortable with.
Ty: Working with the community in the Twin Cities has been a key part of the source material. Being in conversation with the Native advisory council at the Guthrie Theater and local community members has also been a highlight and inspiration for the piece. There is an aliveness to the characters, to the text, and to the story when continual accountability happens with centralizing contemporary Dakota peoples.
The concept of wellness has become much more prevalent throughout our society in the past few years. Before and through the pandemic, self-care and wellness were critical concepts, and more recently in rehearsal rooms, the idea of safety has become paramount. How do the conversations around wellness in the Native community inform the story you are aiming to tell?
Larissa: Wellness is central to Dakota culture, and we are making a play on their land. Again, process: We care very much about wellness in the room, so the first day of rehearsal was opened by two local elders instead of the artistic director or creative team. We have plant medicines available in the room. It is a big part of the story too, but in a comedic way—because, let’s face it, anything taken to an extreme is not good for us.
Ty: Laughter is medicine, and that has been important.
You have both collaborated with each other and with others throughout your careers. What is the key to a good collaboration?
Ty: Wow. Well, I think truth-telling, and pitching jokes constantly. And our values and ethics align; that’s when the magic happens.
Larissa: We laugh all day long. We have each other’s backs. We both come from a community-based way of looking at the world. So we are our own community. Personally, we are also family, which comes with all of the teasing and taking care of each other that any family members have. We just get to bring that to our job as well as home.
David John Chávez (he/him) is a Bay Area-based theatre critic and reporter who writes regularly for the San Jose Mercury News, KQED and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and a two-time juror for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (‘22-’23), serving as jury chair in 2023. @davidjchavez
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