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Changing the Narrative: Two Worlds Native Theater is working to reclaim American Indian identity through arts

Cast members, from left, Stanley Shunkamolah, Vanessa Whitehorse, Tom Mark, Dawn Lura and Sheldon Blackhorse work on a scene from “Love, Shasta Cans, and a First Laugh,” a coming production of New Mexico’s Two Worlds Native Theater company. Two Worlds’ mission is to create and develop work for and by Native Americans. (Courtesy Kim Gleason)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “There’s a small hogan to the left, and then a big house here and a tree to the right.”

Director Kim Gleason is setting the scene for the cast of “Love, Shasta Cans, and a First Laugh,” the coming production of New Mexico’s Two Worlds Native Theater company.

It’s a recent Sunday morning in a Downtown Albuquerque office building, so envisioning hogans and trees requires some suspension of disbelief. The show is still in the early phases of rehearsal.

“We are just blocking this for the first time,” Gleason reminds her actors. “Today is a day to test your movement, see where you are going.”

The play, a two-act comedy by Navajo playwright Zee Eskeets, is set on the Navajo reservation during a party celebrating the first laugh of a Navajo baby. Adding to the turmoil of the usual family squabbling is that Carrie, a 29-year-old Navajo woman who has lived for years in Albuquerque, is taking her white boyfriend to the rez for the first time. Carrie worries about how he will react to her family and to Navajo ways.

“Please, please, please don’t leave the sheep skin, blood and guts where anyone can see it,” she says.

Kim Gleason

Gleason, 38, says one reason she selected the script is that it reminds her of her own Navajo family.

“We are always yelling at each other,” she says. “And there is always the one uncle who is a troublemaker. But at any gathering of a Navajo family, despite our differences, we come together at the kitchen table. It all stops at the table.

“Even if you live in the city, (the reservation) is always a place you can run to, a place where the elders can guide you.”

Reclaiming identity

Gleason said Eskeets’ play is a more lighthearted look at American Indian life than some of Two Worlds’ previous productions.

“Some of our shows have been about more negative aspects – substance abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, being homeless, missing and murdered indigenous women. And that’s important, because it encourages dialogue. But I am glad this play reflects a better part of a Navajo family.”

The Two Worlds company traces its origins to the plays “Kino & Teresa” and “Midnight Society,” written by James Lujan, a Taos Pueblo playwright and filmmaker, and produced at Albuquerque’s VSA North Fourth Art Center in 2006 and 2007. For a few years after that, Two Worlds was a festival of Native American theater and film organized by and presented at VSA North Fourth.

An independent company for nine years, Two Worlds recently attained nonprofit status. Over the course of its evolution, the company has done five theater productions, several short films, staged readings, a multimedia event and a theater workshop for young people.

Gleason, who has been involved with Two Worlds since it was at VSA North Fourth, is now executive director of the company as well as director of “Love, Shasta Cans, and a First Laugh.” She said Two Worlds, like other Native theater companies in the country, is working to reclaim American Indian identity through the arts.

“In college, when I was studying theater, I felt there was no place for me yet,” said Gleason, who graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2005. She said that back then there were fewer plays written by Native people and not so many authentic roles for Native actors.

“But here we are in 2019, and a lot of changes have happened to give voice to the Native community,” she said. “It is important to keep Native theater and other Native performing arts alive.”

Now, Two Worlds is in the final few days of a 14-day campaign to raise $6,000 to help pay a grant writer and cover other costs.

“The goal of Two Worlds is to create and develop work for and by Native people,” Gleason said. “It is important to diversify more. And not to just have Native theater, but also black theater and Asian theater and Jewish theater.”

Blazing trails

“I feel like I should always have something in my hands, because I’m always doing something,” actress Dawn Lura says during the Sunday morning rehearsal.

She’s making an observation about her character, Liz, a strong Navajo mother and teacher who lives on the reservation.

Lura, who is Navajo herself, sees Native theater as a way of carrying on her people’s tradition of oral history.

“Native theater is important to me because I think it is necessary that we tell our own stories, that we are writing our own stories and performing our own stories,” she said.

Near the end of the first act of “Love, Shasta Cans, and a First Laugh,” three of the male characters – James, a well-meaning but alcoholic Navajo uncle; David, a Navajo silversmith and father of the baby boy being celebrated at the First Laugh party: and Steven, a computer nerd and Carrie’s white boyfriend – gather together away from the women. They are supposed to be putting up a screen that will provide some shade, but mostly they share personal information and James’ flask. It is a scene that is revealing, funny and poignant.

James goes from prodding and teasing both David and Steven to recalling the last time he saw his own father.

“It’s a fun character for me,” said Stanley Shunkamolah, the Kiowa/Pawnee/Osage/Comanche actor who portrays James. “Usually I play the heavy in plays. But James has his own space. He knows how to deal with people. Then he goes into this deep moment. Dramedy is a trait common to Native theater and film.”

But Shunkamolah said he sees Native theater moving beyond what it has been.

“It used to be all the myths,” he said. “Now, it is coming into contemporary situations. Here, it is a family coming together.”

Gleason thinks Native theater still has trails to blaze.

“I don’t see enough scenes in Native theater with just all men talking,” she said. “I would like to see an all-male show. There are not enough plays about gay and bisexual characters.”

Even though she enjoys and appreciates the lighter moments in “Love, Shasta Cans, and a First Laugh,” Gleason takes Two Worlds’ mission seriously.

“We make sure we are not producing work just for the fun of it,” she said. “We need to make sure we integrate our community into the arts.”

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