Where We Belong

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

[Addendum – We were originally scheduled to see Suzan-Lori Parks’ new “Plays for the Plague Year,” but because of covid cases in their cast and staff, the performance was cancelled. Happily, The Public Theater was able to substitute this alternative premiere production which delivered a fruitful evening.]

Madeline Sayet. All photos by Joan Marcus.

“Where We Belong”

Regrettably, many Americans blithely refuse to acknowledge the many blemishes in our country’s history, both officially as a government and informally as a society. As a result, we fail to learn from our mistakes. Among our most egregious acts as a country has been our mistreatment of Native Americans, including genocide. Probably the height of hypocrisy has been the abrogation of treaties with various tribes. These and many other abuses can result in feelings by the Native American population of not belonging to the main and of being conflicted in loyalty, as European-Americans have seized their land, suppressed them, and worse. And, of course, many Americans still don’t get it, or don’t want to get it, perhaps because acknowledgement does not conform with their sense of national image. It becomes embarrassing, inconvenient, and expensive.

Against this backdrop, writer, performer, and educator Madeline Sayet has written and acts in a one-person show, “Where We Belong.” The playwright comes from a mixed background of Jewish and Mohegan (known by many as Mohican) and identifies with the latter. Despite displacement and loss of population, her tribe’s roots and reservation remain in Connecticut.

The play covers much ground but explores two major themes. The more common, universal, and expected one concerns the loss of indigenous language, which resulted from U.S. federal policies that insisted on assimilation by native tribes. In school and government work environments, punishment was typically meted out for speaking in native languages. This theme has been explored in other theatrical work. Although James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans” was apocryphal, the Mohegan language shrank to near extinction. Sayet shares stories about trying to reconstruct spoken language from documents and the challenges of resuscitation without native speakers to intone the words.

The more distinctive and personal story derives from the playwright’s love of Shakespeare. An avid student of The Bard, she was accepted into a doctoral program in the United Kingdom. Sayet was particularly attracted to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and especially the character Caliban. Parallel to the experience of Native Americans, Caliban’s territory was invaded by foreigners, and he was subjugated by the interloper. Sayet began her studies in London with enthusiasm and expectation, but one aspect of her participation disillusioned her. There was something about the way that others connected the relationship of her being Native American and succumbing to the attractions of Shakespeare as being her acceptance of Anglo superiority, which was a notion that she rejected, and which would influence her future direction.

Sayet acknowledges that her stories were not intended to be a play. However, she presents and weaves the stories with great confidence. But rather than constituting a cohesive narrative, they act as an interesting collection of related vignettes. Despite the conviction of her presentation, the pacing is somewhat pedestrian for much of the show. However, the latter third contains considerable spark with drama and animation, coordinated by Director Mei Ann Teo.

The performance is aided by uncommonly stunning production values for a solo performance. Production and Lighting Designer Hao Bai’s earthen serpentine on the stage floor symbolizes the Trail of Life with its ups and downs as well as the people who are met along the journey. A rumpled but reflective backdrop shows the distortions that we all witness in life but process inaccurately. Constellations of lights and mobile bars of florescents, along with Erik Schilke’s powerful sound design and composing stimulate the senses and enhance the experience.

The messages of the production are what is expected from one who is trying to promote respect and dignity for all peoples, particularly Native Americans. The content of the show is a bit preachy, and to a large extent, Sayet is preaching to the choir. The theater industry is in the forefront of trying to recognize American indebtedness to the original stewards of the land, and its audiences are among the most committed to diversity and mutual esteem. At the same time, these stories should be told. Hopefully, they will touch potential converts, and good will come from them.

“Where We Belong” is a world premiere written by Madeline Sayet, produced by The Public Theater, and plays on its stage at 425 Lafayette St., New York, New York through November 27, 2022.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s