The government-mandated discrimination against and subjugation of minorities in the United States is legend. Among the more egregious abuses have been those suffered by Native Americans, the country’s original denizens. Under official aegis, they have suffered armed conflicts resulting in loss of life and lands; devastating dislocations; breaches of treaties; and attempts to eliminate their cultural heritage.
One official effort to rectify wrongs was the creation of Indian Reservations throughout the country, which has engendered mixed results. Among the benefits to the tribes has been the authority to permit gambling on their lands, which has yielded financial benefits, but considerable social liabilities. Addiction, especially alcohol-related, had long been a major affliction on “the res,” but casino society has exacerbated the plague.
“Cashed Out” takes place on the Gila River Reservation in southern Arizona, home to the Pima tribe, traditionally noted for their finely woven baskets – tightly twined bowls with crisp angular patterns. The Camu family, whose women are noted as talented weavers, serve as the focal point. While the compelling narrative gives interesting insights into the culture of the native people, universal themes abound – the power of love in family and friendship; internal struggle and external conflict; forgiveness and redemption. The production is striking and highly appealing.
The central figure is Rocky Camu (Rainbow Dickerson), a bright and aspirational young woman. Among the most talented weavers of her generation, she feels overshadowed by her deceased mother, Virginia (Lisa Ramirez), a legendary designer and artisan who views her creations as life forms. Rocky wants to be somewhere other than the res, but despite going away for college, fortune brings her back. However, unlike her working-class family, she would join the white-collar world, becoming an accountant working for the reservation.
Virginia’s downfall would be addiction to pain pills. Rocky avoided the physical pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, but she would succumb instead to the psychological lure of gambling. In Rocky, playwright Claude Jackson, Jr. has created a character who arouses mixed emotions. In her early days, we laud her enthusiasm; her tender feeling for those near to her; and her quest to better herself. Although we feel betrayed and reproachful as she makes unwise decisions, we wonder, does she suffer a disease for which we should sympathize, or does she bear full responsibility for her plight? The playwright conveys in Rocky not just the desperation caused by gambling addiction, but also the loneliness and alienation.
Rocky’s plight begs questions. What makes a person believe that they can beat the odds, especially in a 100% chance proposition like slots or craps or roulette, where the long-term outcomes are highly predictable and always negative? Why do people evaluate themselves and think that others will value them based on their hitting the jackpot? Why do they shirk responsibility and sacrifice human interaction for the repetitive spin of the wheel?
Women dominate the action of the story, displaying agency, leadership, and humanity. One of the interesting aspects of “Cashed Out” is that the addicts are women. In virtually all other artistic works about gambling, the gambler is a male, which may be true in high stakes games. But the glazed eyes of slots players like Rocky usually belong to women.
Apart from the addiction issue, the narrative is full of well-developed collateral relationships. Rocky’s drunkard father, Buddy (Matt Kizer), abandoned Virginia and has a new family, but he makes appearances in the latter period of the play. Appropriately, he lives in Gallup, New Mexico, fondly known as “Drunk Town, USA.” Rocky has a complex, life-long friendship with Levi (Chingwe Patraig Sullivan) who rises to become Manager of Security in the casino. She also has a daughter, Maya (Louisa Kizer – whose real father plays her grandfather), who faces the conflicts of growing up Native American on the reservation, and an aunt Nan (Sheila Tousey) who is a community leader and has takes on guardianship responsibilities when needed.
The portrayals of the two leads drive the production. Rainbow Dickerson plays the complex role of Rocky. With a quick smile and equally easy despair, her unquestionable charisma carries much of the show, though her performance is not fully consistent. Sheila Tousey as the stoic and steady matriarch, Nan, is every bit Dickerson’s equal in easy emotional expression. Tousey demonstrates noble command and great likeability in her character, though she did flub a few lines on opening night. All of the characters in the play are distinctive, and most reveal complexities that generate a strong sense of realism.
Staging is another asset. Designer Tanya Orellana takes advantage of San Francisco Playhouse’s revolving stage to offer two sets for scene shifts, and the stage walls are covered in a woven design to represent basketry. Michael Oesch’s lighting offers contrasts and highlights, and Tara Moses directs with conviction.
The script does suffer a couple of weaknesses that were mentioned by multiple attendees. One easily correctible is that time changes between scenes are often difficult to comprehend, which is exacerbated by flashbacks and imaginary sightings of Virginia. Another is that the ending surprises with its suddenness. It occurs without buildup, and there is a resolution of a character relationship that occurs without sufficient explanation. In terms of performance, a number of lines were difficult to hear, particularly Maya’s. Nonetheless, the play makes an important contribution by exploring Native American society. Its topic matter and treatment are provoking and interesting.
“Cashed Out” is written by Claude Jackson, Jr., produced by San Francisco Playhouse, and appears on its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through February 25, 2023.