Many Indigenous playwrights are working on stages across America today, and even more in Canada. Indigenous people have been storytellers as long as they have been on these lands. While the contemporary American theater field is catching up to commissioning and producing stories of Native people, written by Native people, publishing has not.
It can be a challenge to find Indigenous scripts and some of our best playwrights in the field are not represented by agents or managers. But they are out there making audiences laugh and cry and representing so many Native nations through their work. My taste is for contemporary stories, although I included one that is a contemporary story retold in a historical setting.
As a bonus, this list features all women because I’m an Indigenous, female-identifying playwright, and I know that seeing a list like this when I was a girl in South Dakota would have meant the world to me.
I encourage you to explore places like the New Play Exchange, Native Voices at the Autry, The Eagle Project and check out this (not comprehensive) list of Indigenous theater-makers from American Theater Magazine.
“Our Voices Will Be Heard” by Vera Starbard (Tlingit/Dena’ina Athabascan)
This is the only one set in the past, so I’m putting it first. Although the story is inspired by a contemporary autobiographical reality, the playwright chose to set it in the past to protect the living and uplift how our past and present are dependent on each other. Often Indigenous writers are told to make their characters “more universal” for audiences, however, Starbard beautifully shows how the opposite is true; the deeper her characters are in their Tlingit culture, the more we identify with them as three-dimensional people we all know.
“Native Pride and Prejudice” by Vera Starbard (Tlingit/Dena’ina Athabascan)
I’m a big Vera fan. I’m not a big Jane Austen fan, but this is one of the funniest and most fun adaptation of Austen’s classic that I’ve read.
Starbard updated the story for modern women while keeping the bones of the original. She also uses humor to illuminate contemporary Indigenous issues without ever feeling like you are being given an education, except when you hilariously are. As the Mellon Playwright in Residence at Perseverance Theater Company, this play has been sidelined from production due to the pandemic. Expect to see it on stages all across the country in the next few years. Read it now!
“Sliver of a Full Moon” by Mary Katherine Nagle (Cherokee)
Although Nagle has many produced plays all over the country, this one should be required reading for all Americans in my opinion. Nagle, an attorney herself, dramatizes and personalizes the legal and political battle to close loopholes in jurisdictions between sovereign Native nations and the United States. An essential play to understand why Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) has become an epidemic and how we can help stop it. I learned so much from this piece that I didn’t know, and I like to think I know a lot.
“And So We Walked” by DeLanna Studi (Cherokee)
This one-woman show by one of our best known Native actresses is the first full-length work she has written and sells out every time it is performed. I included the documentary about the making of the play because the process is the play and the play is the process. The walk Studi took with her father on the Trail of Tears that their ancestors took long ago brings history together with today in the most visceral way. It is a story and healing and family and a long walk.
“He Lei No K k ‘ ko: Women Memories” by Tammy Haili’opua Baker (Native Hawaiian)
This play comes from a process that is close to my heart, community-engaged creation for social change.
The stories of the cultural differences between land and house/houselessness and belonging are brought to life by the writer during a tumultuous time of gentrification in a Honolulu neighborhood. Through the interview and research process, the playwright discovers that she has an ancestral tie to the same land. Created and performed in warehouses in the area, this process and production did the best of what theater can do as a living medium, bring people together to empathize, have hard discussions, and solve problems together.
Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota Nation) is a playwright and current MacArthur Fellow, aka the Genius Grant. Her best-known work, “The Thanksgiving Play,” was one of the top ten most produced plays in America last season. While theater takes a break this year, FastHorse is creating projects for NBC, Freeform, Disney Channel, and developing several movies and TV shows.