Plays give unique insight into native experience

Saturday, April 19, 2003

Renowned American Indian playwright Bruce King is currently doing a residency at Haskell Indian Nations University, where the Thunderbird Theatre performed a pair of his one-act plays Friday night as part of a three-night run that ends this evening.

Though the two plays, "I.N.E.T. Radio" and "Forced Utopia," are strikingly different in content, the underlying themes are similar to those often found in modern American Indian arts: the history of the native experience and its effect on native lives today.

The first play, "I.N.E.T. Radio" (an acronym for Indian Nations Evolutions Transistor Radio), is a comedy set in an Oklahoma radio station that broadcasts to native peoples across the nation. The play's central concern -- what defines the Indian people -- is presented in a light-hearted fashion as the radio host and in-studio guest (Daryl Young and Tony Bell) take calls to discuss native cultural heritage. Much of the play's humor is satirical, based on natives' struggle to maintain tradition and self-identity in a country seemingly hell-bent on modifying and appropriating native culture. Some of the play's best moments come during a mock broadcast of national native news and when the play pokes fun at institutions.

"Forced Utopia," the second play, takes place in an insane asylum for American Indians at the turn of the 20th century. Four asylum inmates are shackled to their beds and spend much of the play discussing their treatment and their struggle to maintain a sense of ethnic self amid rampant ethnic cleansing. The four prisoners fight their captors for even the smallest moral victory and, in the end, revolt against the asylum's head, Father Father, played with a whispered, menacing intensity by Dustin Wolfe.

Mostly metallic blue lighting lends the latter play atmosphere, and while the acting isn't always first-rate, the play's subtext comes through full-force -- especially in the final scene, which brings the play to a chillingly ironic ending.

The native experience in America is still largely ignored in schools, and King's plays are an excellent insider's look at the subject. His heritage gives him a unique perspective that all too often goes unseen.

-- Aaron Passman is a Kansas University journalism student.