Instead of Redface: Theater and Performance in the Indigenous Americas

Instructor: Lilian Mengesha, PhD Candidate
Spring 2016, Tuesdays 1-3 PM
Office Hours Tues. 11-1

The hashtag “Instead of Redface” became part of a media campaign for HowlRound’s Native Voices in American Theater Series in February 2015. Playwright and author Mary Kathryn Nagle started the hashtag to gather other Native perspectives on performance in order to, she writes “collectively question why redface is more prevalent on the American stage than our own authentic Native voices.” This course builds on the energy of #InsteadofRedface as we explore performance repertoires of the Native Americas. We will read and perform a broad array of theater and performance pieces from Canada, the United States, and Mexico—The North and Central American landmass that many Native communities refer to as Turtle Island.

Too often the relationship between Native communities and theater has been one of caricature, farce, and inaccurate (and often painful) misrepresentations. The selection of performance texts in this course offer a rejoinder to this history with works authored by and written for Native and Indigenous communities. The course focuses on themes prevalent in Native histories and spaces, which includes but is not limited to topics about ancestral lands, religious and ritualistic practices, and the challenges of authenticity, blood quantum, settler-colonialism and racial representation. Importantly, this course approaches performance and identity through an intersectional framework, meaning we consider feminist, queer, two-spirit and Trans* Native identities as they inform and shape art making processes.

The central goal of this course is to explore the multiplicity of identities of Native and Indigenous people in the Americas. In order to mine this multiplicity, we will ask ourselves how, as actors and directors, can we reconsider our performance choices and their effects on our audiences? What are the stakes of misrepresentation and what is our role as artists in interrupting or continuing particular stereotypes? What do the different genres in theater and performance offer us as we move away from stereotype into a field of multiple understandings of what Native or Indigenous people or places signify? 

Still from Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil, Video by Paul Wong

Course Objectives

By the end of the semester, students will be able to identify key historical events, tensions, questions, and themes that have shaped a variety of Native performance practices. Students will be able to analyze a play script or a recording of a performance piece for its formal elements, including composition, set choices, genre, language and dialogue and how these formal elements are utilized in each piece. Students will also be given important language and key terms relevant to specific Native spaces and performance practices. Lastly, students will gain critical thinking skills in script and performance analysis that will be transferable to future productions and performances.

Course Materials

All plays and performance recordings are available on this blog and linked to OCRA (Brown’s Online Course Reserve). Trinity has also prepared hard copies of select plays.


Students will arrive on time prepared to discuss and engage with the plays, videos and performances assigned for that session. The readings are cumulative and each week we will build on themes discussed previously. All videos will be linked to a course blog, and students are expected to spend time watching and re-watching performances, especially those that are shorter in length. Please read plays twice to get a better sense of the energy, rhythm and goals of the piece.

I have a strict no screen policy (no cell phones, computers, or tablets), and I ask that you bring hard copies of the assigned plays (when possible) into class.

Students will post one or two thoughtful and critical questions to the course blog in response to the readings on the Monday evening before class by 5 PM. These questions are expected to be between 3-5 sentences and touch upon specific scenes, stage directors, visuals or other elements of a performance or play. These questions will be used to shape the class discussion.

Group and Final Performances

The course is divided into three learning modules: Space and Place, In/Action and Time. We will break into three small groups, and each group will select a theme. The group is charged with creating a happening, performance or an event related to the readings and topics at hand. This can range from a 30-minute excerpt from one of the plays in the modules to a group activity or prompt that we conduct in class. The goal of these group performances is to have us think with our bodies so that we are not only developing critical thinking skills, but we are creatively exploring the course topics in relation to performance. This requires that assigned groups screen performances and read plays in advance for their performance. Each group will present on the last day of each learning module. Be creative, be bold, be thoughtful.

The Final Performance on April 26th is a 2-hour group or individual production. We will discuss the final performance details on the first day of class.

Valeria and the Dresser from The Unnatural and Accidental Woman. Performer: Michaela Washburn, Native Earth Production, Toronto 2004. Photo by Nir Baraket, courtesy of Native Earth Performing Arts.

January 26th

Introduction to the Course

Rez Politics, William S. Yellow Robe

Part I: Space and Place

 February 2

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

 February 9

New Fire: To Put Things Right Again, Cherrie Moraga

In Plain Sight by Monique Mohica

February 16

The Taxonomy of the European Male, Séance, and Justice of the Piece by Kent Monkman

Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show From Wigwam City by SpiderWoman Theater

 Part II: In/Action

February 23

Artifact Piece, James Luna [Video/Images]
Note that these are a series of images from a performance from 1987. Please take your time and practice patience when analyzing these images, especially in their original context of the San Diego Museum of Man. If you’re having trouble with your analysis, ask yourself the following questions to get started:

  • What do I see?
  • Are there patterns? Where? Why?
  • What are the materials used? Do they have any greater significance?
  •  From what angles are the images photographed? Am I meant to receive this piece in a particular way?

The Couple in the Cage, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena [Video]

March 1st

The Unnatural and Accidental Woman, Marie Clements

Vigil, by Rebecca Belmore, [Video]

March 8th

Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, Monique Mojica
Remember: She will be hosting a talk at Brown on Friday March 11th from 3-5 in Ashamu. Bring any questions you might have! 

Part III: Time

March 29

Body Indian, Hanay Geiogamah

The Demon’s Nun, by FOMMA (Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya) [See Images]

 April 5

Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) by Caridad Svich

“Chaos” in Evidence of Red, LeAnne Howe

April 12

The Unplugging, Yvette Nolan

Native Girl Syndrome, Choreographer Lara Kramer
*Live Performance at 7 PM, Granoff Studio 1

April 19

Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, Rebecca Belmore [Video] [Images]
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, A documentary on the Oka Crisis

 April 26

Final Performance(s)

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