Play threads through familiar land battles

A play commissioned by Haskell Indian Nations University and performed by Thunderbird Theatre this week at the Lied Center will connect to issues familiar to Lawrence residents: highways, land and power.

"Threads: Ethel Nickel's Little Acre," by American Indian playwright Bruce King, will be performed by Haskell's touring theatrical company at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

"Threads" tells the story of Ethel Nickel, who is in her 60s and lives with the ghost of her husband on her acre of land in a nonspecified tribal community, according to Pat Melody, director of Thunderbird Theatre.

"The state wants to put a highway through the land, the tribe wants the land so they can sell it to the state, even Wal-Mart wants the land," she said.

Melody said the characters include Radcliff, Ethel's brother-in-law who is the tribal business manager and is trying to get the land to sell; Woods, the ghostly husband who is hanging around until Radcliff is ready to take on his responsibility as the elder male in the family; Pants, a woman who has lived her life on the reservation; and Birdie, Ethel's granddaughter who plays the guitar and does not talk until the end of the play.

Melody will direct the play. Blanche Wahnee is set and costume designer. Patrick Carriere is design consultant. Ray Farve is sound designer. Tony High Eagle is technical director.

King, who works for the WarDancer Film Group, was on the Haskell campus in May to work with the cast members. He will return today for a seven-day residency at the school.

"I like to go into a community and tell the story of the community in the community," King said. "The characters always have to stand for something."

Ethel, he said, is the hero and thus must stand alone.

"Her object is freedom, but she also knows it's the end," he said. "Woods is the spirit of the old ways.

"Birdie goes to her roots. Children are the eyes and voice of the Creator. � She speaks with her guitar and is the only one connected to the culture. Hope is in her."

King said he likes to focus on human dynamics and emotions when he writes � although his topics may touch a hot spot.

"When I write, I stay away from the issue and focus on the emotion and human dynamics rather than representational theater," he said. "You can spend a life going from one issue to the next and still not say anything."

The idea to commission a play by King came about two years ago. Lied Center officials and a group of community leaders and artists were working to apply for a grant to encourage conversation about the relationship between the American Indian community and the larger Lawrence community.

Although the grant application was denied, the Lied Center decided to incorporate some of the proposed activities into this year's performance season as part of its three-year Civic Dialogue Project.

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