In "Stand-Off at HWY #37," Vickie Ramirez's deeply felt new play presented by Native Voices at the Autry National Center, a protest against a highway slated to cut across sovereign Indian land sparks issues of identity, cultural tradition, difficult historic truths and present-day hardball politics.
Bulldozers are scheduled to arrive for the construction of a public highway on land reclaimed from a Haudenosaunnee (Iroquois) reservation in upstate New York by the United States government, reportedly due to the recent unearthing of an obscure historical document, but widely assumed to be the result of yet another broken treaty. Leading the protest is feisty Indian elder Aunt Bev (LaVonne Rae Andrews), an early arrival on the protest site along with troubled parolee Darrin (Kalani Queypo) and militant Sandra Henhawk (DeLanna Studi).
On hand to keep order and prevent the protesters from interfering with the construction are three National Guardsmen: Thomas (Eagle Young), a member of one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy himself; Thomas' white commanding officer Captain Hewitt (Matt Kirkwood) and fellow Guardsman, Linda (Tinasha LaRayé), a young black woman.
Evelyn Lee (Fran de Leon), an ambitious newspaper reporter of Chinese descent, shows up due to a bogus claim that actor Johnny Depp will join the protest, and stays for what she sees as a big "cowboys and Indians" story.
Linda feels that Thomas' professed willingness to act against the interests of his own people is suspect; Thomas, who considers himself honor-bound to do his duty as a Guardsman, is nonetheless conflicted when Aunt Bev, with cheerful defiance, positions her chair squarely on the disputed U.S. territory. Thomas respects her as one of his elders and tries reasoning with her; Captain Hewitt attempts to remove Aunt Bev bodily, sparking a dramatic confrontation — and soul-searching — with far-reaching consequences.
The play, based on real-life events, hits a few conceptual bumps. It too often tends toward expository excess and declamations of historic and political import, rather than nuance. The characters of Linda and Evelyn exist as overt parallels to the historic enslavement, exploitation and decimation of the country's Native populations.
Among this capable professional cast, however, Queypo and Studi, as young people shaped in different ways by pervasive racism and negative stereotyping from society at large, are able to dig somewhat deeper. Queypo conveys a sense of despair and damage beneath Darrin's brash exterior, while Studi believably reveals Sandra's guilt and grief over years of denying her Indian identity.
Young's shift from Thomas' rigid interpretation of honor and the warrior code to renegade, while not entirely convincing, grows toward an affecting dignity.
As Aunt Bev — keeper of the flame, teacher, historian and in her own way a warrior at the forefront of decades of struggle for Indian rights — Andrews, who also presents the play's narrative introduction, has the trickiest balancing act. She must impart information about the traditions and history of Native populations that many in the audience may not be familiar with, while inhabiting a complex character of righteous, indomitable spirit. At the performance reviewed opening weekend, Andrews' shakiness with her lines prevented her from fully realizing the role's potential.
Native Voices at the Autry, founded 20 years ago, is the first Equity theater company in the country to devote itself solely to new works by Native American playwrights. Ramirez's play, developed into a full-length production through readings and workshops, has been given a solid foundation, courtesy of professional, award-winning theater veterans — director Jon Lawrence Rivera, lighting designer R. Craig Wolf, set designer Jeff McLaughlin, sound designer Cricket S. Myers, costume designer E.B. Brooks, and projection designer Adam Flemming, who physically frames the production with evocative images of words, scenes of nature and people.
These include a riveting overhead projection of the text of a resolution passed by the U.S. Congress in 1988 that not only reaffirmed the country's treaty obligations to the sovereign Indian nations, but acknowledged "the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution."
Where: Native Voices at the Autry, Wells Fargo Theater, Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday to Sunday. Ends March 16. $10.
More info: (323) 667-2000, Ext. 299, nativevoicesattheAutry.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.