Production combines meaningful performance, Indigenous folklore
By Lucie K. Scheuer for the Rogue Valley Times
As Bill Moyers explains in his opening to “The Power of Myth” with Joseph Campbell, Native Americans believed “the whole earth was a sacred place” and “the spirit of God flowed in every mountain stream.”
They had, he says, entered “the realm of the mythic imagination.”
Achokayis is a Mohegan woman entering this realm, moving between worlds and the fascinating subject of the play “Where We Belong,” now on the Thomas Theatre stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Achokayis exists somewhere between earth, wind, river and sky and eventually flies from the U.S. to Great Britain, hoping to define her life’s calling. She is also caught up in a vision quest, trying to reconcile her cognitive dissonance around her love for a famous white man and his prose who lived 400 years ago, and remaining faithful to her ancestors’ stories. This is her existential dilemma: Coming to terms with what she sees as her dualistic nature. Can she be a loyal tribal daughter and a Shakespeare scholar?
In this magical, thought-provoking production — possibly the best OSF has produced this year — we get to accompany Achokayis along a mystical, sometimes perilous dreamscape of light and mirrors, glistening lakes and mountainous paths to find the answers. We can hear ominous drumbeats echoing through time. We are transported to Southwark Cathedral, where she hears the spirit of her ancestor Mahomet Weyonomon. We are in the British Museum, watching her awe and wonder dissolve to disenchantment, right before our eyes.
To hold an audience’s attention through a 90-minute monologue would be daunting for any seasoned actor, but Jessica Ranville does it skillfully. When the play opens, she reveals she is a First Nations tribal member from Manitoba, but she, like so many Indigenous people, can relate to Achokayis’ story as if it were her own.
Both Ranville and Achokayis’ ancestors may have lost their lands, but Achokayis reminds us “we still had all our words,” their stories passed down from one generation to another. Words are important to Achokayis, especially Shakespeare’s. She has loved his work — the stories — since she was young, but says she mostly relates to Caliban, in “The Tempest,” because he is a native and an outcast on his own island.
In this fairytale-spun allegory, Shakespeare writes about a former duke, Prospero, who has been banished to an island by his treacherous brother, Antonio. In his time on the island, Prospero has transformed into a powerful wizard out for revenge. He has used his magic to enslave the island native, Caliban, who is described as an uncivilized, “freckled misshapen knave.” Something akin to a human hybrid. Prospero views him as beneath him and teaches him only enough language to be able to manipulate him.
Some scholars see this as Shakespeare’s comment on the evils of colonialism, others as accepting of it. As a youth and throughout her life, Achokayis has felt a kinship with Shakespeare and his character Caliban. And now, in her questioning, she wonders if she has somehow molded her view of them to fit her story. She wouldn’t be the first.
OSF and theater companies on both sides of the pond have worked diligently to preserve the original themes in the Bard’s works, while presenting them in contemporary settings. The goal is to ensure the plays are relevant and relatable in regard to race and cultural identity.
“Shakespeare reveals a different face to different cultures and different people at different times,” says Bruce Smith, dean’s professor of English at USC, in a 2016 article by Michelle Boston in USC Dornsife. “When the first folio of Shakespeare’s work was published in 1623, seven years after his death, Ben Johnson, who was a fellow writer, noted that Shakespeare was ‘not of an age, but for all time.’”
In an interview with Meena Venkataramanan for The Washington Post, Farah Karim-Cooper, author of “The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race,” says, “If you are going to hail a writer from 400 years ago as the greatest writer of all time, then you need to look at him in relation to the contemporary moment. Because the moment you don’t do that, he can be bracketed from it all and just kept on his pedestal.”
As for this production — besides actress Jessica Ranville, we have a trifecta of talented artists, starting with its author, playwright Madeline Sayet, a Mohegan native, whose Achokayis is based on herself. We also have a director, a visionary, Mei Ann Teo, who explains in the program her philosophy and possibly the reason this story reaches the heights it does.
“I am reminded how the places we were born from are the very places we need to question, to heal, to interrogate and celebrate.”
And then there is production designer Hao Bai, described in the program as “a multidisciplinary designer in lighting, sound, video projection … for live and virtual performances.” Bai has created a surreal, stunning production. The one caveat would be that light-sensitive attendees should bring sunglasses. Some glaring fluorescent lights and strobe lights are used briefly.
If you are drawn to meaningful performance art, otherworldly scenic design, Indigenous folklore and the art of storytelling, then this is definitely where you belong.
“Where We Belong” runs through Oct. 15 in the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Tickets are $35 to $75. Group discounts available.
Showtimes, ticket prices and further information is available online at osfashland.org or by calling 800-219-8161.