LOS ANGELES - A world premiere by Native Voices, the Native American Theater Company that specializes in presenting original aboriginal plays, has come to the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. Tuscarora dramatist Vickie Ramirez's Stand-Off at Hwy #37 is a powerhouse of a production about the struggle for tribal rights with searing, hard-hitting moments that recall the best of the "proletarian theater" writers of the 1930s.
Inspired by actual events that affected the playwright's family and tribe, the plot revolves around a bypass road being built on reservation land in upstate New York, against the will of the area's indigenous people, who diminutive Aunt Bev (LaVonne Rae Andrews of the Tlingit-Raven Clan) explains consists of members of what has been called the Iroquois Confederacy. American Indian activists, including the goofy but sincere Darrin Jamieson (the spot-on Kalani Queypo, who is Blackfeet and Hawaiian) and the strident Sandra Henhawk (the stellar stage/screen actress DeLanna Studi, Cherokee), join Aunt Bev in protesting the road.
The National Guard is dispatched to the contested site under the command of an archetypal "paleface," Captain Donald Hewitt (TV/film actor Matt Kirkwood). His uniformed, armed troops include the African American female Linda Baldwin (Tinasha LaRaye of Oklahoma City) and the linchpin character, Thomas Lee Doxdater (Eagle Young, Hopi), who belongs to the besieged Tuscarora tribe and was raised nearby, with Darrin. As the tension of the impasse rises Ramirez tosses a scoop-seeking New York Times reporter of Hong Kong Chinese ancestry, Evelyn Lee (Fran de Leon, a Filipina), into the combustible mix. Seemingly innocuous Aunt Bev places her chair near the reservation boundary, right in the line of the (offstage) construction crew, which becomes a major bone of contention.
As Captain Hewitt tries to physically relocate the elder woman, Doxdater takes action. His revolutionary deed sets the stage (literally) for the rest of the play, as the dramatis personae, including offstage tribal and women's councils, the National Guard and press, must decide how to respond.
No doubt Ramirez is exploring a "ripped-from-the-headlines" indigenous clash, as Natives must, once again, fight off what is referred to as "an occupying force." But she also has something else up her tricky dramatist's sleeve: Every one of her characters is beset by divided loyalties and mixed motives, which is the real leitmotif of her all-too-human drama.
Doxdater wears a U.S. uniform, and has sworn to uphold Uncle Sam. But he also feels a tribal allegiance. Aunt Bev is a longtime activist for Native rights, but she is willing to wash her hands of Doxdater if his bold deed might place the cause and herself in jeopardy.
Sandra Henhawk tries to stand by Doxdater, even as this becomes more and more difficult to do, as she strives to be the proverbial high woman on the totem pole. Baldwin, too, is divided: As a Black woman, she pointedly reminds all that she was not one of the "invaders" who stole a continent away from its original inhabitants. Nevertheless, she views the military as a civil service stepping stone out of the 'hood.
Evelyn Lee is likewise divided within herself; the Asian American reporter, too, knows discrimination. But getting a New York Times front page story that may win her a Pulitzer is nearest and dearest to her opportunistic heart. Even Captain Hewitt is not one-dimensional: He can see the Native side of the story, although he is duty bound to pursue his oath as a soldier who knows the chain(s) of command. Oddly enough, the most stalwart of the characters is none other than Queypo's lovable goofball, Darrin, the classic fool who speaks the truth.
Ultimately the playwright, too, may be bedeviled by divided loyalties. Ramirez courageously unleashes the dogs of war and sets her characters on a collision course. And as they head for the brink, she struggles to rein them in.
Jon Lawrence Rivera ably directs the ensemble cast on a simple yet effective set by scenic designer Jeff McLaughlin. Los Angeles has North America's largest urban Indian population. This play is for anyone who thrives on great drama, fabulous acting, quirky characters, and a theater of conscience and consciousness.
Native Voices at the Autry presents Stand-Off at HWY #37 on Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m. through March 16 at the Wells Fargo Theater, Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027. (323) 667-2000, ext. 299. www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org.