The Los Angeles Theater Center continues its Cultural Reconstruction Series with the lively and insightful one woman show What's an Indian Woman to Do?, starring Cherokee Indian actress, DeLanna Studi. Presented by the HOOP (Honoring Our Origins and People) and the American Indian Dance Theater, the play is the story of Belle, a half White, half Ojibwe girl who identifies with her Native American Heritage, yet is constantly "culturally upstaged" by her white friend Katrina, and ceremoniously mocked for her modern life and ideas my her traditional reservation bound Auntie, for whom she was named. The one-woman show is based on Marcie Rendon's succinctly titled poem: What's an Indian Woman to Do When White Girls Act More Indian Than Indian Women Do.
Belle regrets the day she ever mentioned wanting to be Pocahontas instead of Cinderella for Halloween, because at was the beginning of her best friend Katrina's assumption into Belle's Native American culture. Suddenly, all things Ojibwe were of keen interest to Katrina, and she became the authority on it, despite Belle standing in the same room. Belle tries over the years to remove herself from this relationship, particularly after Katrina steals her boyfriend Kyle, sending Belle fleeing all the way from St. Paul to a place no one will find her, Minneapolis.
Belle recounts spending summers with her aging Auntie Belle, dubbed "City Girl" because of her clothes and purple hair and her interest in musicals rather than traditional Native American dance. Auntie is filled with anger and disdain because what white men have done to her people, and because it is part of what keeps her alive after such a hard live, living in the same chicken shack she was born in. Where Belle learned a lot from Auntie "just by sitting". (A lovely echo to the fact that for many cultures, history is passed down verbally.)
The inevitable confrontation brews when Katrina reenters Belle's life, sporting an Indian boyfriend, Moose (a college boy playing the "Warrior role", who actually grew up White). In the end, Katrina pays dearly for her intrusion into Belle's modern yet sacred Ojibwe world.
DeLanna Studi's performance as Belle is a wonderfully complex tug of war between personal identity and responsibility to her heritage. Her body and voice move between characters with ease, portraying a colorful array of characters, at least ten by my count. From the cotton-mouthed Auntie Belle, to the youthful boyish Kyle, Studi imbues each personae with just the right amount of levity or weight. She is seemingly tireless on stage, armed with only two props and three simple stage pieces.
This show is surprisingly dense in the themes that it explores. The foremost of which is an issue I think of as Bragging Rights. There exists this personality type that tends to identify so intensely with the plight and issues of a minority group that they feel entitled to act and speak on behalf of this group, without actually being a member of said minority. It is advocacy to the extreme, forgetting that the dilemmas and responsibilities of said minority group are not actually their own. In reality, minorities cannot change the color of their skin with a phone call to Daddy. And while advocacy is a beautiful thing, because mainstream culture usually will not pay attention unless a white face is put on it, to quasi-immerse oneself into a culture as the Katrina character does in the piece is just a new level of hypocrisy.
Speaking of hypocrisy…
How should minority women feel when we see one of our men with a woman other than "one of us". It is as automatic as seeing a couple and wondering what is she doing with someone so old or, how did he land someone so much more attractive than himself. Don't we all make judgments about people and relationships we encounter?
Is it hypocritical to want to be seen as a Native American and also want to marry the blond haired, blue-eyed John Smith? When all of societal cues are pushing you in one direction, is it so wrong to just ride the wave, fit in, disappear. For any minorities, there will always be the task of balancing one's individuality with cultural awareness. That responsibility weighs heavier on people of color, because it is their traditions and languages that are disappearing. It is the struggle Belle faces, right alongside pride in her heritage and a healthy sense of self-love.