Staging Ethnicity (Part Three)

Chief Bromden Will Sampson

Will Sampson (as Bromden, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”)

The PuSh Assembly has commissioned a thought-provoking manifesto from acclaimed First Nations actor, choreographer, director and educator Michael Greyeyes. His manifesto will address the inherent complexities of staging ethnicity—what defines “native” theatre, what the public expects it to be, and how this impacts those who create and experience theatre made by contemporary native artists.

Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday (Part Three)

I’ll call it “our little cross to bear.”

The actor introduces the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” relating the stories of McMurphy and Bromden trying to lift the marble/ water/ machine device.


The actor in his recounting even attempts to lift the podium. He genuinely struggles, muscles straining, veins bulging, but to no avail. He isn’t “big enough.”

Until the very end, when Nurse Ratchet has the Jack Nicholson character lobotomized, and Bromden realizes he must be free or die in that place… Let’s watch that final scene.

A/ V CUE #1: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (final chapter) plays on the screen.

(As the soaring music from the video clip fades, the actor walks back onto the stage facing the audience. The final image of Bromden, his white hospital pants clearly visible against the backdrop of trees and greenery, running free—directly into the countryside.)

That’s a beautiful image.

But they “staged the native” … in a profoundly subtle way.

(genuinely wondering)  Where was Bromden going?

He was heading into the woods… But somehow that was okay?

That was his place.

In nature.

Does he not have the skills to survive there, the knowledge to learn the land and make a home there?

We don’t question that at all. Imagine if Bromden was a Jew, or a Greek. The audience would be worried about him. (anxious) Uh. Where’s he going? He’s running into the woods… There’s bears! And cougars. How is he going to survive? There was a hidden hand here writing that story, re-writing our images. They “staged” the native, and it’s been happening ever since we were first represented on stages and in media in the North American context.

They are packaging, making static our image, our reality according to a set of prescribed codes. In this film, they “staged the native.”

Dramatis Personae refers to casting, who’s on the stage. Will Sampson, who played Bromden, was an incredible actor, an immense presence on screen. We know. We know he is an Aboriginal man. We have no doubt of his authenticity.

Local colour is a term they use in theatre studies, that refers to the trappings of a specific staging. It includes anything we see on stage, the costumes, the set design, the props. Let us say you want to stage Romeo & Juliet, and you want to set it in Italy, during the renaissance. You may not necessarily want to put that Pepsi machine in the background of the piazza. You don’t want to set up something inconsistent with our belief in the time frame, etcetera, etcetera. So local colour is used to lull you into the belief of a presumed reality. It immerses you in a world of belief. And if the “world” of the Indian looks right—then conversely so must the rest of the “package.”

Language. Language is a very powerful tool. When you hear it—you know. It, like the others, immerses you in a world of authenticity. It immerses you in the reality… of the native. Leading your further down the garden path.

And what about the music. I loved that weird harp sound. And there were also the drums… And flute…

(beat)  I could almost hear the hawk cry.

With that as a backdrop of sound, with the drums and the flute—they painted him. They painted him red, unmistakably, as native. You see there was a “hidden hand” writing, imagining that scene according to its creators’ unquestioned (and unexamined) cultural frame.

This reminds me of something Marlon Brando spoke about a few years ago, when he asked why there were no Jewish stereotypes in early (or subsequent) Hollywood films. Of course Hollywood is replete with all those most egregious and outrageous stereotypes: the wily Chinese, the listless and lazy slave, the drunken or lawless Mexican—and countless more. But there is no equivalent Jewish stereotype. Why, he asked?

Of course he was pilloried for saying it: ‘An anti-semite!’ But nonetheless, he was correct. There are no cruel and demeaning stereotypes of the Jew because the Jewish community—who were fortunate enough to be in positions of control within the Hollywood system—saw no benefit to promulgating them. So they didn’t allow them to be presented. You saw their “hand” by the absence of it. And that’s how critical race theory works.

Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s, in America, from the legal academy. In it, the theory asserts (quoting Ric Knowles “Theatre & Interculturalism”):

• That racism is not aberrational but systemic (or ‘ordinary’)

• That racism serves the interests of a white dominant elite and working class who have little material interest in eradicating it

• That race does not, in scientific terms, exist but is invented, socially constructed, and historically variable—although the material consequences of its invention and application are very real

• That no person has her or his own unitary, essentialist identity; rather, everyone participates in identity construction that cuts across a range of categories including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and ability.

Out of this work, other scholars began to examine the “hidden hand” that was writing representation. From this emerged “whiteness studies.” Yes, it’s a course you can take: Whiteness 101. • Ric Knowles, a noted scholar, adds “that whiteness studies reverses the ethnographic gaze, racialises whiteness, and investigates the invention of ‘normal’.” • It asks, “where whiteness comes from, how it became the ordinary, neutral fallback position from which ‘others’ could be viewed and judged…”

You see, you have to look backward in time—you must look toward yesterday to see the hidden hand that has been writing your narrative… “PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!!!”

From Thine Eyes, Michael Greyeyes

from thine eyes

Photo of Sean Ling, by Cylla von Tiedeman

This is a photo of a recent production from my company, Signal Theatre. This is from thine eyes, which I directed and choreographed.

I have zero interest in staging ethnicity.

Let’s look at the requirements for “staging ethnicity”:

Dramatis Personae: none of my cast were Aboriginal.

Local colour: I assiduously avoided any of the trappings of the native stage—no feathers, no regalia. Modern clothes.

Language: there was little spoken text. It was in fact a dance theatre work—and the text was primarily physical. But again it was not identifiably “native.”

And music. The music included classical work—Mahler, but it was primarily contemporary in its sound. There weren’t any drums or flute present at all.

I was breaking all the “rules.”

But what I am most proud of is that the work was Aboriginal to its core. The creative and dramaturgical team, myself and Yvette Nolan, as writer, were both Aboriginal. The production team and cast was incredibly diverse, but they were all guided by Native Earth Performing Arts (our co-producer) and its 7 core principles: Courage, Generosity, Tolerance, Strength of Character, Patience, Humility, Wisdom. And each section, each moment reflected our knowledge as Aboriginal people and the social realities that affect our communities. The first section explored addiction, the second examined spousal abuse, the third examined how we heal from grief and loss, while the 4th section explored my spiritual belief, taught to me by my parents, of our passage into the next life—as we journey into the land of the dead.

FTE Bones

(The actor becomes more adamant—fiercer—more focused.)

So I stand here before you—before members of my own community—CHARGED WITH THE TASK OF MAPPING A WAY FORWARD!

But there is no way forward—the MAP HAS EXPLODED. We can move forward, backward, up, and down. It does not matter since the paths are too numerous to choose from.

But, at the same time, we must acknowledge our burdens. Too heavy to lift in years past. Too important, too defining to abandon. I just hope that our shoulders are broad enough to carry that past and in so doing… SET IT FREE.

The actor moves to the podium and grasps it at its base—mirroring Bromden from the film clip shown earlier. The actor struggles mightily to gain a grip. He strains but does not relent. He will not give up, until the podium rises. He pauses, then surges it onto his shoulder. Straining. He gains his footing standing with the podium balanced upon him…

**In the ideal setting—the actor would smash the podium through the screen at the back of the stage—letting it rip the fabric, creating a whole through which the actor jumps  (just as Bromden did from Ratchet’s ward)  forcing the audience to stand as he runs away from them, receding into the darkness of backstage.**

(At the PuSh festival in 2012, the stage went to a snap black as the actor began running toward the screen.)


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