Goodspeed's INDIAN JOE. (c) Diane Sobolewski.
Paul Lincoln, Jahi A. Kearse, David Finch, Gary Farmer and Elizabeth A. Davis in Goodspeed's INDIAN JOE

Gary Farmer Talks About His Role as Indian Joe

Alex Jacobs
11/25/15

“Indian Joe -- A New Musical” debuted October 22 at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Connecticut and ran until November 15. Goodspeed Theatre produced the one-of-a-kind stage musical and more power to them for attempting something so different and difficult.

The role of Indian Joe was played by Gary Farmer. Farmer is a local and national hero for his role in popular films, his blues persona with Gary Farmer & The Troublemakers, his publishing work and for being an all-around-great NDN guy.

ICTMN spoke to Farmer on a rare day off, as Indian Joe had run from Wednesday to Sunday, two shows a day sometimes. That’s 8 shows over 5 days and rehearsals ran 11-12 hours a week. As we talked, he slowly built up and let off some of that energy required to do such a stand-up role, which included singing on stage in front of an appreciative audience (and some a little dubious) of over one hundred people.

Gary had let us know previously that he would be ending the Troublemaker Road Song Tour and going directly to Connecticut. The information took me by surprise but… Yes! Why not? An angry homeless Indian becomes friends with a Texas beauty queen singer/songwriter trying to kick-start her career in the big city. Any doubts that were in the back of my mind had to be set aside, since Gary Farmer did take on the role and he was in the middle of the run, still himself, not regretting anything.

So how’s the play, this musical called Indian Joe, going for you now?

FARMER: Well people are standing up, we are moving them. There’s lots of language. Two shows a day, rehearsals. It’s challenging, it’s wonderful. I’m acting, singing on stage. My harmonica is part of the show. It plays into my strengths, kind of happenstance, but I’m grateful. It’s work and maybe more work than I figured, I mean 36 shows! I’ll get it right eventually!

Tell us more about the story-line, the promo says it’s based on real events?

FARMER: I’m working right across from the writer (award-winning actress Elizabeth A. Davis), she wrote the book, wrote the songs, she’s singing her songs, right across from me. It was a one-woman show, she’s a musician. She’s miles ahead. It’s fascinating really, to happen right before your eyes. It was written from real events, her life. It’s emotional for me and definitely emotional for Ms. Davis. She was a wealthy white girl, in college, a real Miss Texas runner-up.

My character, Joe, was really on his own, lived on the street his whole life. He’s folks died when he was just a kid. It’s very powerful. I get to interact with the audience, in the front rows, you know asking for cash. And one guy in the middle, a white guy probably from Connecticut, he says, “Oh, you’re doing just fine.” And it makes me think, these folks probably don’t know or meet many Indians. Maybe just at the casino, so you know, Indians, “we’re doing just fine.” So I get to this line and I over-run it, I look right at the white guy and say the line and then on to the black character on stage, who is supposed to take my anger. So by the second act, that white guy is gone.

It’s powerful, direct, it works on a lot of levels. I mean I’m all by myself, there’s no other Indians around.  It’s tough to get feedback. But it’s theatre, the stage. It’s always been there for me. You can’t take away from the honesty, its right there. You can’t do that on TV or Film, really. I mean the audience has to go to the theatre and then be there with you and for you. It’s a lot of work. But I got a lot to draw on, “I been Indian all my life!” It should really go the National Museum of the American Indian, a homeless Native man doing it right there on the Washington Mall.

It sounds difficult but rewarding, I mean you’re half-way through the run, and you’re all excited.

FARMER: People ask me “how do you remember all the lines”. It’s like your golf stroke, you constantly practice your stroke, and sometimes you get a curve ball. Its muscle memory, even some race memory, like I already know the character, his story, I know Indian people that lived it. I make it work. It’s a beautiful process, it’s my first love. It makes me feel good, healthy, physical. All the emotions, the love, the fear, the anger, the physicality. Actors got to act and that’s why I toured first, so I could sing and get my voice in better shape. And it worked! Hey, I’m singing acapella with a beautiful Texas Queen!

You know there’s no support of theatre in our communities. Just the stories alone, story-telling is so powerful, so profound. Audiences respond. We need to represent ourselves to these audiences. All the changes we been through, we can affect how people think about us.

So are you pretty much all alone up there?

FARMER: I had just a couple people come by. One Indian guy, really an old AIM kinda guy, he related to the story, the loss of parents very early, he saw terrible things in South America happen to Indian people, he went to Alcatraz and just got involved after that. It touched him, it was his story. How many Indian Joe’s are out there, you know? Thousands of them. But it’s all cool, it’s all good.

You know there’s a political side of the story that the opera house itself stands on some Indian tribal land. It’s so, how do I say this, so white bread everywhere, this whole settler complex, and bureaucracy, huge, deep bureaucracies. I appreciate that its hard on the theatre audience too, I’m saying “Fuck America” up on stage. It’s not easy. It’s not easy on the theatre people either, all the work they do, all the jobs at stake. And they are just touching that hole, not even going too far inside. I mean this theatre is meant for someone like (Native playwright) Tomson Highway, he wrote this play called, “Rose”. It’s never been done as far as I know. That would be something. (Rose is the 3rd play of Highway’s series incorporating characters from Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.)

I just feel this urge, like breaking into the Whiteman’s camp, I’m inside the fort and I want to let all the Indians inside, you know just like the old days!

Wow, Gary, thank you so much and good luck on your run.

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