(Randy Reinholz. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)

It used to be there were few, if any, established Native American playwrights bringing stories from Indian country to the stage.

Today, their historic and contemporary tales of identity, family drama and larger cultural issues affecting this 1 percent of the U.S. population are increasingly being told through Native Voices at the Autry.

The Equity theater company hosts its 16th AnnualPlaywrights Retreat and Festival of New Plays, culminating in free staged readings of three works in various stages of development. Readings take place at the Autry National Center’s Wells Fargo Theater on Wednesday and Thursday, and at the La Jolla Playhouse on Saturday and June 1.

 

They include “Our Voices Will be Heard” by Vera Starbard, a Tlingit/Dena’ina playwright from Alaska. The dramatic and intricate tale, interwoven with the creation myth of “Wolverine Woman,” exposes the disastrous effects of sexual abuse in a historic Alaska Native community.

Starbard interprets the story through several performances of a button blanket dance throughout the play; button blankets feature shell-embroidered designs that tell of a family’s history. As the secrets are revealed, the button blanket deteriorates.

 

“When you see it, it’s very powerful,” says Randy Reinholz, co-founder of Native Voices at the Autry. “That’s how young people take the traditional elements and then weave them together with their own experiences.”

The newest play comes from Jennifer Bobiwash, an Ojibway actress and playwright from Burbank.

Her one-woman reading “There is No ‘I’ in NDN” — to Indians what Chicano is to Mexican Americans — is a tongue-in-cheek look at Native identity in the 21st century. The play is a spin-off of her Welcome to the Tipi YouTube Channel in which she takes on hot-button issues in Native character.

 

“I bring a lot of humor, and I think that’s an innately Native trait,” she says. “We understand that we’ve had all these atrocities, but we’re not all serious, stoic Indians. It’s OK to laugh about it.”

As always, the audience is invited to throw in its two cents after each reading.

“Usually we have to stop them at half an hour because people are really excited to engage in that process,” says Reinholz, also a playwright who has put a Native twist on the William Shakespeare comedy “Measure for Measure.”

 

In his version, love, righteousness, faith and mercy compete in the Old West when an Indian boarding school, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and the local town and saloon inhabitants collide over the fate of a young Lakota teen unjustly sentenced to death for impregnating his Irish girlfriend. Shakespeare’s accused is a young Viennese man.

“Shakespeare was using this to point out many people in England were getting married in a Catholic way,” says Reinholz, who is of Choctaw heritage. “They’d go off in the country, do it in secret and come back. Once they were pregnant and it looked like the marriage was going to succeed, they’d go ahead and get married in the Anglican church as a way of complying with English law, because Catholicism was outlawed.”

 

Likewise, anything Lakota would’ve been outlawed in the boarding school where the motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” he says.

To save her brother’s life, an aspiring teacher trying to put on all the values of Victorian society offers her virtue in exchange. But a successful madam reluctantly steps in and saves the day, making for a play with dueling heroines.

“I know it sounds heavy but it plays really funny,” says Reinholz, whose play is on track to be Native Voices at the Autry’s spring 2015 production.

 

Many previously work-shopped plays have gone on to enjoy successful runs on Native Voices at the Autry’s mainstage and elsewhere, including the company’s recent “Stand-Off at Hwy #37,” 2013’s “The Bird House,” 2011’s “The Frybread Queen” and the 2009–2010 season opener, “Carbon Black.”

While no writer has yet broken out, they are being commissioned to write new productions for regional theater.

“Once those people prove they can make money, then Hollywood will pay attention,” he says. “But they won’t care until then.”