Elizabeth Frances (Lily), Jane Lind (Jessie) in "The Frybread Queen"

The Frybread Queen is Poised for a Breakthrough

Rob Schmidt

In the play The Frybread Queen, which premiered March 12 at the Autry Theater in Los Angeles, three generations of Native women come together to mourn a man. As they prepare frybread for their guests, tempers flare and secrets emerge. The ghost of the departed lingers nearby, haunting them to the end.

Playwright Carolyn Dunn (Muskogee Creek, Cherokee) is a multitalented author of poetry, plays and novels. She’s worked frequently with Native Voices at the Autry, the theater program staging her play for a two-week run. The Frybread Queen is scheduled to conclude its run March 27—for information and tickets, visit the official page for The Frybread Queen at TheAutry.org.

Although born and raised in L.A., Dunn is no stranger to frybread. She's made Indian tacos to sell at a pow wow booth and cooked frybread over a fire at a ceremony, and—like her play's character Carlisle—she once broke a fingernail while kneading dough.

Most of Dunn’s fiction has been historical, addressing such issues as the Trail of Tears and Oklahoma statehood. But one of her unfinished novels features a modern clan of Navajo, Cherokee and Creek Indians. It was the starting point for The Frybread Queen.

Jean Bruce Scott, Native Voices’ executive director, had long wanted Dunn to write something contemporary and funny. When Scott heard about the novel, she urged Dunn to turn it into a drama. Dunn was busy, but Scott insisted. “She laughs and says I locked her in a hotel room and made her write the play,” said Scott.

The novel ends with a Navajo man’s dying. Dunn decided to write about the women who remained—the ones who endure abuse and violence from their loved ones. “Frybread is really the metaphor for the struggle of this family to come to terms with the death of the son,” she said.

The play is essentially a sequel to the novel, though it’s taken on a life of its own.

Developing Native artists

The Frybread Queen began its journey when a national panel selected it for Native Voices’ 2007 playwright retreat. There Dunn began working with dramaturg Rob Caisley to massage it into shape. Since then they’ve become joined at the hip, said Caisley, who is directing the play at the Autry.

“I read a lot of plays over the course of the year,” he said. “And a lot of them are bad. And then I read plays that need work, but even in the earliest of incarnations, there’s something that’s elementally working about them. And I think that’s the case with Carolyn’s script.”

Through workshops and readings over the next three years, Dunn and Caisley revised the play. Among the changes they made were deepening the conflicts, emphasizing the supernatural element and identifying a new ending.

This lengthy development process isn’t unusual for Native Voices, said Scott. It’s what sets the program apart from other Native theater programs—indeed, from other theater programs in general.

“We are primarily a new-play development theater company,” she said. “And we are proudly one of few companies in the United States that still provides as much support and funding as we do to our playwrights. We’re really happy to be at the forefront of that.”

As an example, Scott points to the Alaska Native Playwrights Project held in Anchorage last year, for which Native Voices invited ten storytellers who hadn’t written plays—including a dancer, a mask maker and a basket weaver—and paired them with mentors. The effort was “wildly successful,” she said. Native Voices chose two of the resulting works for development in its nationwide competition.

“We’re putting tens of thousands of dollars into the development process for each of these plays,” said Scott. “And we’re putting our money where our mouth is and producing them—in a high-profile venue under an Equity contract. It’s a level of professionalism and credibility within the theater community that doesn’t happen everywhere.”

To extend its reach, Native Voices has partnered with organizations such as New York’s Public Theater, Washington’s Kennedy Center and La Jolla Playhouse. But like other arts programs, it has suffered budget cuts in recent years. “Terrible!” said Scott, who seems undaunted. “We’re doing more with less,” she noted—“being very mindful and strategic in our spending.”

One of their cost-effective techniques is distance dramaturgy: collaborating on works via e-mail and conference calls. By supporting writers with stipends and long-distance help, they’ve found they can do more than by meeting in person.

Besides launching artists, Native Voices has helped boost their careers to the next level. For instance, actress Delanna Studi (who appeared in Native Voices productions Jump Kiss, The Buz’Gem Blues) has gone on to do the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County and a season of Shakespeare in Oregon. Playwright Larissa Fasthorse (Teaching Disco Square Dancing to Our Elders) has won an NEA grant to write about growing up as a Lakota ballerina. Diane Glancy’s Salvage played at the Origins Festival of First Nations in London, and Joy Harjo’s Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light has had several prestigious productions.

Montana proves play’s power

In 2010, Native Voices co-produced a developmental version of The Frybread Queen with Montana Rep at the University of Montana. It was a huge success. “We had tremendous Native audiences,” said Scott. “They drove in from all across Montana, Idaho. And over and over and over again they kept saying, ‘It’s so amazing to see ourselves on stage. That’s me up there.’”

Caisley compares The Frybread Queen to the 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, which showed African Americans struggling in an urban setting. It sent “a shock wave through American theater,” he said, because it “appealed across all boundaries. The Frybread Queen does the same thing for this community. It just speaks in a universal way the way all great theater should.”

Since the Montana production, Dunn and Caisley have used readings and distance dramaturgy to fine-tune the play. They’ve also assembled what Caisley calls a “dream team” cast. Jane Lind (Aleut) returns as the Navajo matriarch. Joining her are Kimberly Norris Guerrero (Colville, Salish-Kootenai, Cherokee) as the estranged wife, Shyla Marlin (Choctaw) as the sister-in-law, and Elizabeth Frances (Cherokee) as the daughter.

The actresses say they see themselves in the characters. Lind has family members who are coping with poverty and addiction. Annalee is “the women I love so much back in Oklahoma,” said Guerrero of her role. Like the woman she plays, Marlin is an urban Indian who is learning about her heritage.

What Dunn has brought out, said Lind, is the hardships and catastrophes in women’s lives on reservations and in villages. “At times, it is too close for comfort for me because I’ve seen and experienced and heard the plight of our Native people, which is still happening today. It’s not happening in a Third World country, it’s happening in the United States.”

The onslaught of violence against Native women has received a lot of attention lately. Department of Justice statistics suggest that one of three Native women will be raped in her lifetime and three of four will be assaulted. The wall of silence is finally breaking down—in the media and in the scripts Scott has read.

Probably the biggest change over the The Frybread Queen’s history, said Scott, is “the embracing of the back story of all of these characters. All of the women have experienced some form of violence or abuse. And it leads them to do particular things that maybe they wouldn’t do ordinarily.”

Handling the play’s verbal and physical abuse is tough for the actresses. After two days of rehearsal, they felt emotionally shellshocked. Caisley told them, “Remember, ladies, this is only a play.” Guerrero turned to Lind and said, “Oh, if only it was.”

But they also feel an almost spiritual drive to keep going. “It’s like the story with a capital S has called us to tell it,” said Guerrero. She likens it to a gathering in a ceremonial roundhouse or tipi or around a fire, like the scene in Dances in Wolves.

“At this fire, anyone can speak up and we can deal with our issues honestly and openly. We can face our fears and try to find solutions. In that sense, it goes deeper than a normal theater group. It is Native at its philosophical core. Everyone has a voice and the freedom to share their creative viewpoint.”

Getting bigger and better

Scott and artistic director Randy Reinholz (Choctaw) are hoping the Autry production will be a breakthrough for Dunn and The Frybread Queen. “One of the goals for Native Voices,” said Reinholz, “is to see the plays get productions in addition to ours. And to see the artists get opportunities for a more lucrative and prosperous career.”

“This is our 18th year with Native Voices,” he added, “and 12th year at the Autry. And so I think the sophistication in the writing and the craft and the acting is getting denser.” To some extent, Salvage and Wings were breakthroughs, he observed, “but it does feel like this one might start to find an audience. Several professional big companies are coming out to look at the production. So the buzz on the play is quite good.”

Advance ticket sales were brisk. “We have a thousand tickets sold already,” said Reinholz days before the show opened. “And a thousand is kind of what we do for the run of a show, typically.”

Scott notes that a Native Voices production will typically draw the interest of 20 or so literary managers and artistic directors looking for the next hot property. Several have already expressed interest in The Frybread Queen.

“They deserve to be in mainstream American theaters,” she said of her Native playwrights. “They definitely belong up in that echelon.”

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