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UMaine Lecture: Why Native Theater Is Embracing Shakespeare

A staging of "Henry IV" 1 & 2 Madeline Sayet adapted and directed at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre. (Madeline Sayet website)
A staging of "Henry IV" 1 & 2 Madeline Sayet adapted and directed at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre. (Madeline Sayet website)
October 15, 2019

ORONO, Maine — Modern Native American theater companies are increasingly staging productions by an unlikely playwright: William Shakespeare.

Madeline Sayet, the executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program and a Libra Visiting Diversity Professor at the University of Maine, will give a talk on Thursday titled, "Indigenous Shakespeares." In it, she will discuss why many Native American theater artists are embracing Shakespeare.

"At the Indian boarding schools, Shakespeare was taught. So there's a kind of historical-like relevance and also defiance that comes with the relationship,” Sayet said. “In many instances, the reason we have Shakespeare is because we were forced to give up our own languages."

In the last 10-15 years, Sayet said, Native artists have used Shakespeare as a tool to reclaim their voices. For example, in 2017, "Off the Rails" was the first play by a Native playwright to be performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" set in an Indian boarding school.

Sayet described how some productions use Shakespeare as the basis for another important cultural project.

"There's been a big movement toward Shakespeare productions that are translated into indigenous languages,” she said; “where indigenous languages are being shown very clearly to be as important, if not more important, than Shakespeare.”

Such stagings are on the rise - in part as a way to teach and preserve indigenous languages at risk of extinction.

Another reason for Sayet’s visit to the University of Maine is to develop a play with Penobscot playwright Maulian Dana. It will be based on the true story of Molly Spotted Elk from the Penobscot Nation. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Spotted Elk was a prominent dancer in Paris. She ended up fleeing France during World War II.

"People are really attracted to both the idea that vaudeville is naturally a part of the world, and the cabaret Paris dance scene of that time period is an incredibly compelling imagistic time, but also of this Native woman in this time period doing these things that no one would assume that anyone did,” Sayet said.

Sayet's lecture, "Indigenous Shakespeares," will take place on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in the Innovative Media Research and Commercialization Center at the University of Maine.

Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Public News Service - ME