Native American Women’s Theatre

A review of Confronting Convention: Discourse and Innovation in Contemporary Native American Women’s Theatre, by Tiffany Noell.

With her doctoral work, Tiffany Noell fulfills two objectives. First, she constructs a new research area in Theatre Studies by offering a study of performance texts specifically authored by playwrights who are of both Indigenous and European heritage. Second, she offers this work as a contribution to one of several Indigenous research projects posited by Graham Hingangaroa Smith that aims to transform Western academic discourse. To contribute to this effort, Noell strives to position Indigenous Knowledge (IK) as a hermeneutic key to her work (p. 50).

Confronting Convention: Discourse and Innovation in Contemporary Native American Women’s Theatre explores the painful and complex issues surrounding métissage and its lived reality, especially how contemporary Mixed-Blood playwrights in twentieth and twenty-first century North America negotiate the term. Examining the performance texts of Coatlicue Theater, composed of the Colorado sisters (Chichimec Otomi/mestiza/ Chicana), Diane Glancy (Cherokee/American), and Marie Clements (Metis/Canadian), Noell interweaves “story and history within [her] analysis” (p. 50) to illuminate the “multi-vocal lived identity” that she identifies as the “main concern” of these playwrights (p. 36).

Noell’s first chapter situates the reader by unpacking Metis/mestizo history. She identifies challenges that trouble Mixed-Blood identity and visibility by introducing artists whose works engage with multifaceted histories. Her analysis is based on various theoretical lenses that provide insight into those works. Among these are various applications of border theory, Gerald Vizenor’s notions of “survivance,” Jace Weaver’s “communitism,” Christopher Balme’s “theatrical syncretism,” and Diana Taylor’s work involving the transmission of cultural memory and knowledge (p. 51).

In Chapter 2, Noell focuses on the Colorado sisters (Coatlicue Theater) who she identifies as “products” of border discourse (p. 51). Informed by Birgit Däwes’s web of identity theory, Noell establishes a “web of indigenous Mexican-American female identity” (p. 51) within each Coatlicue performance as a “visible intervention” upon the anxious discourses that surround the Mexican/U.S. border and the identity/authenticity of its inhabitants (pp. 56-57). Bilinguality (English/Spanish), which is seasoned with snippets of Indigenous language (Nahautl/Zapotec), and performative code-switching are both features of border discourse within these dramatic works. These are, Noell argues, primary mechanisms of connectivity insofar as the multiplicity of linguistic signs accommodates a large and diverse audience. At the same time, she cautions, these mechanisms may also create “isolation gaps,” wherein some unilingual witnesses of Coatlicue’s work may find themselves momentarily at a disadvantage. Complication occurs when they are unable to comprehend the articulated and/or embodied signs that belong to a culture to which they are outsiders. These isolation gaps, Noell contends, may create moments of temporary alienation, but they also offer the possibility for heightened communitas to those who accept Coatlicue’s invitation to engage in multilingual dialogues outside the theatre (p. 90).

In Chapter 3, Noell examines an “alternative space” articulated within the works of Diane Glancy wherein this playwright “redefines the world(s) between the Native and White worlds through her characters’ negotiation of identity(ies) and culture(s)” (p. 97).  She posits this space as a “figurative crossroads” where the oppositional binaries that demarcate and separate spiritual beliefs and practices are subverted (pp. 97-98).  Noell introduces her notion of “a spectrum of spiritualities” as a lens through which to view Diane Glancy’s negotiation of the psycho-spiritual border between survivance and despair (p. 98). It is this border, Noell argues, that preoccupies and that is uniquely occupied by Mixed-Blood individuals (pp. 97-98).  Noell observes that while Diane Glancy is an artist of German and Cherokee heritage, her work encompasses a “wide variety of experiences and paths of Mixed-Blood individuals in the US” (p. 131). To accommodate the transmission of these worlds, experiences, and expressions of spirituality, Noell contends that Diane Glancy invented unique narrative structures. Her storylines privilege character, as opposed to action (plot) and “rely on Native, instead of Western, understandings and worldviews” (p. 131).

Chapter 4 continues Noell’s exploration of structural innovations in her examination of the works of Métis playwright Marie Clements by extending Peggy Phelan’s notions of bodies that are “marked” (visible and therefore ‘targeted’) or “unmarked” (unremarkable bodies, which are ignored by racial profilers, voyeurs, or fetishists) (p. 135). Eschewing these rigid binaries that classify bodies as ‘one’ or ‘other,’ Noell places emphasis on the “obscured” characters that occupy Clements’s worlds as inhabitants of a “liminal space in which they can gain agency with Canadian society” (p. 134). Reading Clements’s work through the lens of Gerald Vizenor’s Fugitive Poses, Noell demonstrates that the obscuring of Clements’s characters—achieved by investing the silenced with voice and/or by animating the immobilized to ‘act up’—subverts “the cycle of victimry” into which Indigenous and Mixed-Blooded peoples have been written, thereby storying the obscured body into active presence (p. 138). Techniques such as this employed by Marie Clements to ‘story’ survivance and the reliance of her dramaturgical innovations on Indigenous conceptions of “story, time and space” are identified in this chapter as the building blocks for “another possible methodology with which to examine history” (p. 135) and to thereby effect change (p. 172).

Confronting Convention: Discourse and Innovation in Contemporary Native American Women’s Theatre is ultimately concerned with the distinct dramaturgical frameworks and structural innovations constructed to carry the distinct stories that speak specifically to the experiences of Mixed-Blood peoples in contemporary North America. Amongst these innovations, Noell explicates, are the challenge to “Western notions of time and corporeality” (p. 173); the privileging of Indigenous Knowledge Systems, “in which multiple planes of existence are intertwined” (p. 174); border-interventions where oppositional binaries underpinning the colonizing narrative are smudged and subverted (p. 174); and multivocality, an idea that Noell defines as a key (perhaps, the key) feature belonging to the works of Native and mixed heritage theatre makers (p. 174).

These investigations open up several new and fruitful possibilities for exploration and dialogue in the areas of Theatre, Drama, and Performance Studies. Indigenous artists across North America are introducing innovative dramaturgical structures with each new project. As the needs of our peoples and the conditions under which we live shift and transform, so the stories that direct and contain our lived experiences must shape themselves to properly carry, communicate, and inform those experiences. Finally, the concerns and works of Mixed-Blood peoples have historically been received and theorized as Native-authored, Native-themed works. Confronting Convention: Discourse and Innovation in Contemporary Native American Women’s Theatre reminds us that the issues, preoccupations, and works that belong to the experience of métissage are complex and specific. The study of this steadily increasing play-canon requires the innovation of new theoretical lenses developed within a profound and organic comprehension of métissage and lived experience within its multiple worlds. Tiffany Noell’s doctoral work sheds light on those worlds and opens the conversation.

Jill Carter
Aboriginal Studies Program
University of Toronto
jill.carter@utoronto.ca

Primary Sources

Academic Search Premier
Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library http://hidvl.nyu.edu/video

Dissertation Information

Arizona State University. 2011. 208 pp. Primary Advisor: Tamara Underiner.

Image: Coatlicue. Wikimedia Commons.

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