By Karen Isaacs
What did you learn in school about Native Americans? I remember only a few things – about Thanksgiving and how Native Americans helped the early settlers; the Vale of Tears; some treaties; reservations; and Custer’s death at Wounded Knee.
Only in the last decades have I learned more about the people who were here when the Europeans arrived. To be honest, it is uncomfortable to realize how poorly they were treated and how superior the settlers assumed themselves to be.
When you leave Between Two Knees now at Yale Rep through Saturday, June 4 you may be embarrassed that you laughed so much and had such a good time learning about the assortment of indignities and injustices that were perpetrated on these proud people.
The show was created by The 1491s, an intertribal indigenous sketch comedy troupe, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who is the co-presenter with Yale of the production. It is directed by Eric Ting, who some may remember was Long Wharf’s associate artistic director for a number of years.
Early in the piece, Larry (who often serves as narrator) tells us “…it’s OK! We’re gonna make this fun. We gonna talk about war and genocide and PTSD and molestation. So it’s OK to laugh.”
In a series of scenes that reminded me of SNL or vaudeville, we follow one family from the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 up to the occupation of Pine Ridge (at Wounded Knee) by Native American activists in 1973.
Many of the scenes tell the story of Wolf (renamed Isaiah) and Irma who meet at one of the notorious Indian Schools. These banned the students from speaking their native languages as the teachers (often religious figures) used physical and mental discipline to extinguish any hint of cultural pride or awareness.
While Isaiah has been thoroughly subdued, when Irma arrives at an older age, she is a fighter who will not forget who she is. The two escape and through the following generations their son fights in WWII and their grandson in Vietnam.
This through story – from Wolf’s birth until 1973 — is powerful. Other scenes are less successful, though still humorous. There’s a ridiculous wedding scene that includes the officiant in a long blond wig like some hippy guru. Another that goes on too long features the escape of Irma and Isaiah from the Indian school. Here projections give us dozens of flying nuns – looking somewhat like bats – pursuing them. It is funny but needed to be shorter.
Eight cast members play multiple roles; all except one are Native American. The company makes a joke about the difficulty in casting the remaining role of a Chinese man.
This is truly an ensemble piece with the cast members effortlessly changing characters and time periods. Justin Gauthier is terrific as Larry – not just the narrator but appearing in other roles such as “FDR Larry,” “Jesus Larry,” “Cowboy Larry” and more.
Derek Garza and Shyla Lefner are standouts as young Isaiah and young Irma.
Ting has directed with a sure hand adding touches of subtle humor. Before the show, the Rodgers and Hart song “Give it back to the Indians” is played. It is touches like these, including the sound design by Jake Rodriguez that adds to the production’s humor.
Not every member of the audience laughed the night I saw it. Some were able to totally laugh at the humor and exaggerations (such as the Wheel of Massacres that talked about several in Connecticut), while others laughed more nervously or were silent, unsure how to respond.
It is disconcerting to realize the pain that was caused, the sense of superiority and entitlement that continues when we speak of the Native Americans. Reservations are still among the poorest communities in our country with high rates of suicide, addiction and mental health issues. Too many Native American languages have been lost or are becoming instinct.
You may feel guilty at laughing and enjoying Between Two Knees as you recognize what was perpetrated in the name of our country. Even if your ancestors weren’t here during all of it, there is still enough guilt to go around.
For tickets visit YaleRep.org
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