Following the August 20th performance of INFORMED CONSENT at The Duke on 42nd Street, Diane Fraher, Founder of AMERINDA, and Muriel Miguel, Founding Member and Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theatre, joined playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer and members of the cast to discuss some of the issues the play raises with the audience. Primary Stages Associate Artistic Director Michelle Bossy moderated the discussion and began by asking Diane and Muriel to describe the missions and activities of their organizations.
Diane Fraher: AMERINDA’s mission is to make the indigenous perspective in the arts available to a broad audience through the creation of new work in four primary mediums: visual, literary, performing, and media. We serve emerging and established artists. AMERINDA’S greatest value is that it’s an alternative space. It provides an equal opportunity for Native artists. There are often people who are inspired to do Indian projects who are not native people. By having AMERINDA, Native people can know there’s a place where they can come and have a voice. Presently, this Saturday and Sunday nights we are presenting a native interpretation of Macbeth. We’re very proud of that. We’ll be traveling to various parks in the city. We present readings and productions, create films and mount exhibitions. We also have two nonfiction anthologies. AMERINDA is grounded in the traditional values of Native culture, respect for everyone’s right to express themselves.
Muriel Miguel: First of all, Spiderwoman Theatre will be forty years old next year and we’re the oldest ongoing Native feminist theater group in the world! We’re now working on a piece called Material Witness and it’s about violence. Forty years ago we did a piece called Women in Violence and now forty years later we are still doing a piece about women and violence. This is about Native women, what’s happening with Native women, on the rez, in the city, and how people are being murdered and disappearing. We bring people from Canada to work with actors from New York City. And we go to Canada and work there. We also work on reservations. We had a residency in Syracuse where we first put Material Witness on its feet. Next year in May we’ll be producing it at La Mama.
Michelle Bossy: Deb, would you tell us something about where the play comes from?
Deb Laufer: One of the great things about being a playwright is that I write about what I want to read about. I knew I wanted to write about the genome. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation through the Ensemble Studio Theatre funded this play. They fund all kinds of art about science so I love them very much. I knew I had a very short time to get in a proposal so I put out a call on Facebook to get friends to send me ideas about the genome. A friend sent me Amy Harmon’s piece from the Times about the court case between the Havasupai tribe and Arizona State University. It was about where science and religion bump up against each other, which is an area that fascinates me. What people believe and why they believe it. So I wrote a proposal and got the grant and had to write the play.
Question from the audience for Deb Laufer: I have a question about the ending. It seemed like it could go in any which way. I’m wondering if that was the case while you wrote it or if you knew from the beginning how it would end.
Deb Laufer: Just between us, it went different ways just two weeks ago. I was playing around with the last ten pages of the play through the previews. I have a very patient cast and they helped me find what we have.
Question: I’m curious about the inspiration for the characters. What kind of research did you do? Have you traveled to the region?
Deb Laufer: Yes, Sloan sent me down to spend a night with the tribe. They have a lodge in the Grand Canyon. I had written many drafts of the play at that point. But that really cracked it open in a new way. That changed my approach. I added many more scenes for Arella. Or a lot more to the scenes I had. It’s being taught in medical schools now, this play. More and more schools are asking to teach it. This is a landmark court case that I really didn’t understand when I started writing about it. I understood the ideas behind it and was excited to explore those. But until I spent some time with the tribe and saw how dire their situation is and how this has affected them, I didn’t get to the heart of the piece. Which is why it’s being taught. You can be taught about medical ethics and being respectful about another community, but until there’s a face to it, I don’t think it hits home in quite the same way.
Question from audience: I’m a retired socio-cultural anthropologist. Usually I find that the scientist, the anthropologist in a play or movie is a caricature. This character is very fully written and beautifully realized. The whole business about informed consent. I’ve been through that and you got it right. You got everything right except. . .
Deb Laufer: Next question. [laughter]
Socio-cultural anthropologist: I’m curious about the business where the protagonist wrote about migrations. Did that really happen?
Deb Laufer: The scientist whose work inspired the play. Her focus was on schizophrenia and she studied that. But the thing that devastated the tribe is that she published papers and gave talks about their migration pattern. That devastated the tribe more than any other study she did.
Socio-cultural anthropologist: I didn’t pick up on that dispute when it happened. The kind of genetic anthropologist you present probably wouldn’t be interested in migration.
Deb Laufer: Well, she was.
Question from the audience: I’m struck by the use of the word “Native.” In the play when the scientist mentions the study of the Pima, Arella’s reaction seems to be, “What does the Pima have anything to do with people who sprang from the floor of the Grand Canyon?” How do the Cherokee or the Pima or any tribe respond to the use of the catchall word “Native”?
DeLanna Studi (who plays Arella, the spokesperson for the unnamed tribe in the play and is herself a citizen of Cherokee Nation): I wish I had a simple answer for you. I find, in my community, it’s generational. My father is not opposed to saying “American Indian.” A lot of the younger generation say “Native American.” Even now we are branching out to use “Indigenous.” The way I was always taught growing up was to ask for what tribe or nation they belong to. And that’s who they are. So I introduce myself by saying “I’m a citizen of Cherokee Nation.” Most people will introduce themselves by their tribal nation name.
Muriel Miguel: Also it’s “First Nation.” It’s “Native American.” It’s “Native.” It’s absolutely right that it’s generational. I still say “Indian.” My children don’t. When you go to Canada, they say who they are by nation.
DeLanna Studi: When I’m auditioning for parts, people assume that because I’m Native I must speak Lakota. I must know Navaho. And Mayan. When I’m the only Native person on the set, it’s not uncommon to be the ambassador for all things Indian. That’s a big burden to place on someone. I may know some Pima but that doesn’t make me knowledgeable about them.
Muriel Miguel: A lot of people are taking their names back. The Pima don’t call themselves Pima any more. They’re now called Akimel O'odham.
Diane Fraher: Also, not everybody got along. People had differences. You have to remember, as colonizing people, the first thing that happens is that they try to take away your identity. And create this false identity for you, or imaginary identity, so you will fit their definition. It all goes back to the doctrine of discovery and the principles that that held. These ideas from the doctrine of discovery are embedded in the Constitution. We are still trying to move through the system to overthrow these ideas. A sovereign people knows its identity.
Question from the audience: The play seems to be about two conflicting truths. I’m wondering if your rehearsal process got into how conflict happens in groups?
Deb Laufer: Let me just say, at the first rehearsal, our director Liesl Tommy said, “There are no stupid questions. We’re going to have to talk about some really personal things and dig really deep or the play is going to be shallow. Everyone has to feel safe. Once we get to the bottom, then we can start working on the play.” There were days when everyone went home crying. It was a hard process at first. As DeLanna said, we all turned to her and said “Oh, tell us.” It was an unfair burden on her. And she was extraordinarily gracious about it. The play touches on religion, on creation, history, and questions of identity. Things that are really sensitive.
Pun Bandhu (who plays Graham, the husband of Jillian, the genetic anthropologist): I think the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes. When we started the rehearsal process, Liesl went around the room and asked each of us about our faith, if we have any. Do we have things we’ve inherited in our family, diseases. It became deeply personal to all of us. And in this way all of these issues, that are so specific, resonate.
Question: I have two questions: One is the decision to have a mixed heritage child in the play. Why did you make that choice? And the other relates to the controversy about the film, Aloha, in which Emma Stone plays a Hawaiian woman. How do you feel about casting actors who are not representative of the character?
Deb Laufer: I have a lot of reasons to insist that many parts of the world be represented in the cast. In every play I’ve done anywhere in the country I have always said “These people don’t have to be white.” And I find I have to keep arguing that, again and again. They ask, “What will it be saying if we cast people of color in this part?” So I did put in script for this play that all assumptions should be defied. The idea that there is no genetic market for race I got from a Ted talk. And I thought: that belongs in a play. I want people’s assumptions to be challenged. Also, I just wanted to cast all these amazing actors that I see at auditions and have to argue about being cast.
Pun Bandhu: Regarding your second question, I have a lot of thoughts. How rare it is for minorities to see themselves onstage or onscreen. Here was the perfect opportunity: Emma Stone’s character was half-Asian, half-Hawaiian. Yet Cameron Crowe even said that he had written the part with a white woman in mind. It speaks to the lack of voice, the lack of representation. It’s so frustrating. Here was a role that we were uniquely suited to play and yet we were denied that. It speaks to the tradition of Yellowface in Hollywood. It’s happening again in the new movie, Peter Pan, where the role of Tiger Lily is being played by Rooney Mara, the whitest women you could ever find.
Muriel Miguel: We need allies. Allies who will not take over from us. Who will stand with us and not push us aside. We need to tell our stories.
Diane Fraher: You have to think of this as a very strange mystery play being played out around you all the time. In America, it began with people on the other side of the world dividing up everything among themselves. And saying that they had the right to do this because people were either less than human, which translates in the Constitution into someone being three-fifths of a human, or some people were inhuman, which was our people. Therefore it becomes okay to take what you want for yourself, entitlement without consent. It begins with the taking of the land, the taking of our ideas, the taking of the people. And it keeps playing out. What happens in INFORMED CONSENT addresses that. It’s still happening today with non-white people.
There are three more scheduled talkbacks happening after every Thursday evening performance.
The Off-Broadway Premiere at The Duke on 42nd Street of INFORMED CONSENT by Deborah Zoe Laufer is being co-produced by Primary Stages and The Ensemble Studio Theatre through EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.