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Staging Area
UMaine English professor amplifies Native voices in literature and theater

About the Art:  Untitled diptych by one of Margo Lukens' former students.

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The "agitators" started in soon after Margo Lukens began teaching a class in Native American literature at the University of Maine. The UMaine students Penobscot and Passamaquoddy discovered aboriginal plays in her classes and had a thirst for more.
The students were responding to familiar issues and situational humor in plays like Dry Lips Ought to Move to Kapuskasing by Canadian Cree writer Tomson Highway. The play's conversations and relationships tapping into the cultural undertow resonated with students like Dale Lolar of Indian Island in Old Town, Maine.

"The work we did in Native American literature caused me to pause and rethink," says Lolar. "The stories took me back to my childhood, helping me learn more about myself. After reading that play in her class, I wanted to do more than that, and I kept bringing it up."

Inspired by their interest, Lukens developed a new graduate course in Native theater for spring 2003. Of the 10 students who signed up, more than half were Penobscot or Passamaquoddy. It was the first time Native students were in the majority in one of her literature classes.

That January, Lukens and a handful of the students traveled to Rhode Island to attend the Trinity Repertory Company's reading of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, written by Assiniboine playwright William Yellow Robe. Following the production, actors and members of the theater company joined Yellow Robe on stage for a discussion of multiracial identity.
For Lukens, it was a watershed moment.

"It was emotional and interesting," says Lukens of the evening in Providence. "I'd also heard people on Indian Island talking about racial prejudice depending on whether someone is full or mixed blood. That's when I knew that, if the Maine community could see this play, it would be so healing and an opportunity for healthy discussion."

That semester, Yellow Robe accepted Lukens' invitation to visit her class at UMaine, and conversations began in earnest about the utility of theater as "a tool for expression, healing and letting the world know the humanity and perspective of Native people." In some ways, says Lukens, Native theater echoes the oral traditions of the past and "the way people used to receive that kind of information."

"There is emotional and temporal/physical involvement of people from the actors to the audience in Native theater. That's part of the power of it," she says. "Audiences come expecting to have their emotions engaged. Actors give voice to characters that can work through and experience issues that we find personally difficult.

"Native playwrights often write merciless satire of people and institutions and forces that cause pain. They write of genocide, loss, stunted growth of generations of Native people. But when they take those themes on the stage in the caricature of nuns or (Gen. George) Custer or the enemy of the people in such a way that provides some release and relief, the playwrights and actors and, ultimately, the community audience get the upper hand."

Yellow Robe, who has been writing plays for three decades, as well as acting and directing, says his works are "an examination of humanity how to nurture and maintain humanity in this pop culture of materialism."
"It's also about how to nurture and maintain your sense of humanity in the face of great adversity," he says. "Margo's work is looking at the issue of white privilege."

Lukens' Ph.D. research at the University of Colorado focused on four 19th-century women Margaret Fuller, Harriet Jacobs, Sarah Winnemucca and Zitkala-Sa who subverted literary and imaginative paradigms of the dominant culture to express the particular reality of women marginalized because of gender or ethnicity.

During a 1999 UMaine sabbatical, she researched the literary history of Maine's Wabanaki people. She sought out-of-print story collections of Wabanaki storytellers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and on the recommendation of a local tribal leader, she discovered Aboriginally Yours, Chief Henry Red Eagle, an anthology of writing by Henry Perley of Greenville.

Lukens also teaches what she calls "the literature of mixed blood," in which authors or their characters are of diverse racial heritage. In Anglo-American literature, especially that of the 19th and 20th centuries, mixed blood often was emblematic of disadvantage or convoluted loyalties; sometimes the idea of mixed blood inferred tragedy, a sense of doom over the character, or an evil that must be overcome.

In more contemporary Native literature, there's been a shift, with authors "beginning to see a different way of dealing with mixed blood and its widespread incidence," Lukens says. "What comes up is the idea of mixed blood having the potential for an amalgamation of strengths instead of weaknesses. Through cultural connection, the person goes through the difficulties of mixed heritage, but overcomes through ties to the community."

The first semester of her graduate course in Native theater, students performed two plays on two local radio programs: Yellow Robe's Better-n-Indins and Indian Radio Days, written by Choctaw playwrights LeAnne Howe and Roxy Gordon.

Later that year, members of the Penobscot community asked Lukens to serve as an adviser for their staging of scenes from The Independence of Eddie Rose. The production was part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month on Indian Island. The poignant play by Yellow Robe raises issues concerning sexual abuse, alcoholism and denial.

"It was held in the community center with an adult audience during the day," says Lukens. "It was very powerful. There were people in the audience who wept. It was at that moment that I learned how powerful this could be and how an amazing, instantaneous connection to deep issues can happen.

"My touchstone is that there are Native people for whom this is working."

In fall 2004, Lukens secured a Visiting Libra Diversity Professorship for Yellow Robe, who spent 10 weeks on campus, teaching playwriting and directing Better-n-Indins at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre.

Since then, the presence of Native theater in central Maine has grown from a novelty to a nuance. This past September, UMaine's Readers' Theater featured two plays by Yellow Robe, Falling Distance and A Great Thing, performed by the playwright and three local Native actors, with Lukens reading stage directions.

In the community, members of the Penobscot Players, a group formed by Dale Lolar that includes other students who took Lukens' classes, gather informally for readings when not giving public performances.

"There are all kinds of dynamics when you grow up in an oppressed situation," Lolar says. "What happens when you put a lot of this stuff away is it stays inside you. But when you read this stuff (in literature and plays) happening to someone else and it's so similar, it reaffirms your own experience. Revisiting it helps to make sense of things you're struggling with and sheds light on your identity. To take that out and share it with each other, there's a sense of community that happens. We are all survivors."

While Lukens' scholarship is in Native American literature, she sees herself more as a facilitator than an authority on the subject, a position that has everything to do with being sensitive to a community finding its voice after generations of oppression.

"It's important always to be in consultation with the community," says Lukens. "It's also important that the publication of any of my work does no harm, that the Native community doesn't feel disempowered or that something was stolen from it."

According to Yellow Robe, Native communities "are tired of academics putting them under the microscope." But with Lukens, the relationship is different.

"They've never felt that with Margo, because they know they're being considered as human, not a theory or a research project," he says. "She wants to present documentation of life lasting, a framework of a new wheel to provide accessibility for Native and nonnative people to present ideas. Almost like a new thought," says Yellow Robe, who returned to UMaine a year ago where he is a part-time instructor in the English Department.

This past fall, Yellow Robe taught a 400-level topics course in Native American drama. In December, his play A Stray Dog was staged at the Public Theater in New York City as one of five productions in its Native Theater Festival. This spring, he is teaching Lukens' survey course on Native American literature while she is on sabbatical. In addition, he has been asked by some members of the Penobscot community to help them write a play.

"The Native community must know this is an achievable art form that they can develop," he says. "The nonnative community must know that this is the voice of their neighbors that they've not heard before and that they were not taught to listen to. It's not a question of being politically correct, it's a question of being aware of your environment, society, people who live in your community."

by Margaret Nagle
March-April, 2008

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