by ED RAMPELL
he sensitive subject of onscreen diversity recently unleashed firestorms. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans criticized Sony Pictures’ Aloha as “white-washed,” with MANAA’s Guy Aoki fuming in The Huffington Post: “It’s so typical for Asian or Pacific Islanders to be rendered invisible in stories we’re supposed to be in, in places we live.” Aloha writer/director Cameron Crowe apologized for casting blonde Caucasian Emma Stone as a character whose ancestry is 25% Polynesian, 25% Chinese and 50% Swedish. Deadline Hollywood likewise apologized for an article asking if increased “ethnic casting” was “Too Much of Good Thing?” if it meant that white actors had become ineligible for certain ethnic roles. In the world of the National Football League, controversy has swirled around a team’s name many Native Americans deem offensive—and on July 8 a federal judge ruled in favor of canceling the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration.
Similar concerns are affecting theatre: in 2013, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation and East West Players presented a “Diversity: Through a Director’s Eye” forum at the Pasadena Playhouse. And at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, a production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage Country (presented in repertory through September 27) is providing an opportunity to explore the thorny, complex subjects of “ethnically correct” casting, stage stereotypes, indigenous authenticity and relations between Natives and the dominant majority culture.
Although Johnna (Jeanette Godoy), the play’s Cheyenne character, is often in the background amongst the bickering, embattled Westons, one can derive insights into theatrical depictions of Native Americans by putting her center stage. Johnna is one of two characters in the first scene, wherein Beverly (Tim Halligan) — a fallen poet and professor — hires the Cheyenne woman as family caretaker, particularly for his pill-addled wife, Violet (Ellen Geer).
“Beverly literally confesses to Johnna he’s going to kill himself,” says Godoy, which explains his hiring her. “Beverly knew her father and what kind of a person Johnna is and will be, in terms of taking care of the family.” Godoy describes her character as “resilient, strong, a caregiver” who studied nursing, although her father’s death derailed Johnna’s education. “[Johnna] definitely personifies an anchor for all of the tragedies and chaos the family goes through, serving as balance they can just depend on. She doesn’t judge—she’s just there for whoever needs her support.”
Godoy’s own research revealed that the role of a Cheyenne chief was to take care of the tribe; in effect, Johnna plays this “chiefly” dynamic in Osage vis-à-vis the Westons.
Oklahoma-set Osage appears to be an intense family drama in the Eugene O’Neill tradition (booze and all). But beneath the surface, Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner may be more. Geer likens Osage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, believing it’s “definitely” a metaphor about “the downfall of America in a very special way…. It shows who we are very clearly—the dark part of us.”
And Letts’ dialogue does at times explicitly deal with indigenous issues. Consider this husband-wife exchange:
Barbara Fordham: “What were these people thinking, the jokers who settled this place? Who was the asshole that looked at all that flat, hot nothing, and then planted his flag? I mean, we fucked the Indians for this?”
Bill Fordham: “Well, genocide always seems like such a good idea at the time.”
Placing Osage in a land that was Indian country first, shows that “the strength, tenacity and insanity” of the play’s white female characters come from a legacy of the “American struggle for possession of that land,” asserts author/academic Dr. M. Elise Marubbio, American Indian Studies associate professor at Augsburg College, Minnesota. Marubbio, who is of European ancestry, describes a seeming “ambivalence towards Native Americans and our history as a settler/colonist country and… of genocide and white guilt towards that.” In Letts’ play, “perhaps,” she says, can be found a commentary about what “we have become as a people” in “settling the U.S. and claiming it through conquest and genocide.”
Considering Johnna’s significance, and that Osage may be an allegory for America, Geer insists it was vital to cast an indigenous actress. “It’s her nature, who she was. It’s so rare that they write parts for Native Americans. There’s no way you could do it any other way in this day and age,” Geer maintains.
Thirty-something Godoy, who was born in Torrance and raised in Inglewood, calls herself “indigenous Xicana” and traces her lineage to Aztecs and Cora Indians in Mexico’s Jalisco state. She’s been a social justice activist and educator, working with the United Farm Workers and Politics and Pedagogy Collective at East L.A.’s Roosevelt High School, and she’s performed with L.A.’s award-winning Cornerstone Theater Company. Godoy is a third year MFA actor at UCLA, where she studied under Geer.
“No, I am not Cheyenne, but yes, I am an indigenous woman and identify as such,” Godoy candidly states. “I find lots of commonalities between my culture and the Cheyennes’. I also had to be grounded in the fact that I’m representing a completely different community that is not mine. So I had to put in lots of research and [talk] to different actors who played this role in the past and really try to find not playing the stereotype, but the humanity of this character.”
Should Native characters only be portrayed by indigenous actors? “That’s a tough question,” muses Godoy.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lanford Wilson’s 1982 Angels Fall, nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play, starred Caucasian actor Danton Stone as Navajo Don Tabaha. Stone relates that he flew to New Mexico reservations with Wilson to research the role, and for speech lessons from a Navajo voice coach. Today, Stone believes “if a character is a full-blooded indigenous person, they should only be played by Native actors. My character in Angels Fall was half-Indian, and in retrospect, I think it was a cheat for me to even have done it. Parts for Indians are so rare, they should be reserved for Indian actors. No exceptions, unless the role is like one quarter indigenous,” says Stone, who acted in 2014’s Day Trader at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater.
Randy Reinholz, Founding Producing Artistic Director of Native Voices at the Autry, thinks casting Natives in indigenous roles is “one of those things people should try to do…. It just seems smart.” Native Voices presents plays by and featuring indigenous artists. Among its productions are The Frybread Queen by Cherokee/Muskogee Creek playwright Carolyn Dunn, and Tuscarora dramatist Vickie Ramirez’s Stand-Off at Hwy # 37.