Friday, October 27, 2023

"For the People" at the Guthrie Theater

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal for a world premiere new comedy at the Guthrie. To watch the creation process at one of my favorite theaters, where I have been a subscriber for twenty years, is an opportunity I would jump at no matter what! But as I learned more about this piece, and finally had the chance to see it last night, I realized just how special this opportunity was. For the People is a special kind of play, one like I've never seen before. It was written by Native playwrights, stars an almost all-Native cast, and features stories of our own Native community, which sadly is a rare thing. Too long Native voices have been stifled, even though they've been around on this land for the longest. But happily, there seems to be a renewed focus on telling Native stories lately, from TV shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, to plays like For the People. Much like those series, this play shows modern Native people in all their complex humanity, just going about the business of living their lives. It's a wonderful opportunity to support Native artists and our local Native community, and it's also a really funny and engaging play featuring some great performances and thrilling technical effects. See it in the Guthrie's proscenium theater now through November 12.

The story takes place at a brand new Native American center on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, the real-life site of a thriving Native community for almost a hundred years (a history of which I was embarrassingly unaware). The center is run by an idealistic young woman named April Dakota, and was paid for by her father, casino owner Robert. She's trying to win over the Native council, which includes elders and community leaders (and her father), who are less than convinced about her new ideas, and concerned about the finances to keep the center going. April befriends a young White woman named Esme, and the two bond over yoga and music. At first they seem to be on the same page about the center and the neighborhood, but Esme's talk about improving and "uptowning" the neighborhood with the help of her developer father begin to sound concerning, something April doesn't realize until it's too late. April and the council are forced to protest and use grass roots methods to save their neighborhood.

the elder (Wes Studi) holds court (photo by Jaida Grey Eagle)
The scenes I saw being rehearsed (watch the reel below) were some exciting action sequences (with fight director Aaron Preusse), as well as protest, chants, and songs (with sound designer Victor Zupanc and Indigenous music consultant Talon Bazille Ducheneaux). It was fun to see how they'd evolved since I'd seen them, and come to full life on stage. It was also fun to watch how director Michael John Garces and playwrights Larissa FastHorse and Ty Defoe worked together developing the piece along with the cast, designers, and consultants. There was a spirit of play and discovery in the room, with all voices being heard as they explored the best way to tell the story. It was everything I imagined a rehearsal room to be, in the best way, and it resulted in a fully formed and well told story that's engaging from start to finish.

The eight-person cast is terrific, and feel like a family. Excitingly, they're all making their main stage Guthrie debut in this play, although half of them are local actors who have been seen on other stages around town - Ernest Briggs, Adrienne Zimiga-January, Nathaniel TwoBears, and Kendall Kent (the only non-Native in the cast). The rest of the cast is L.A. based - Sheri Foster Blake, Kalani Queypo, Katie Anvil Rich, and Wes Studi, who has been a working actor in Hollywood since the '80s, from Dancing with Wolves (giving extra punch to the joke that his character was in the movie) to Reservation Dogs. It's an honor to see our local Native actors, as well as national Native actors, on stage at the Guthrie, and a long time coming. Larissa FastHorse recently became the first known female Native American playwright on Broadway with The Thanksgiving Play, and it's unfathomable that in 2023 we're still having "firsts" of things that should have happened decades ago.

photo by Jaida Grey Eagle
The play is full of local references, including a joke that Esme has a standing reservation at Owamni, the successful Indigenous restaurant near the Guthrie that is notoriously hard to get into. The community center set is painted with bright, colorful, happy murals, and filled with exercise equipment, yoga mats, and other things you would find in a community center. There are some eye-opening special effects that happen late in the play, making us viscerally feel what is happening (especially if you're sitting in the front row). Characters are dressed in modern casual wear with nods to their Native heritage, from full patterned skirts to bold jewelry to graphic Ts (scenic design by Tanya Orellana, costume design by Lux Haac).

For the People is a funny, relevant, and inspiring new play featuring impressive technical effects and endearing characters embodied by a talented Native cast. It's the first play at the Guthrie that's by Native people and for Native people, but I encourage non-Native audiences to see it too, in order to learn more about and support our Native community. See it now through November 12.