Lakota Playwright Uses Humor To Challenge Issues Of Racial Purity

Apr 7, 2017

Kevin Inouye as Klan member Rebel and Piram Duran as Calvin rehearse a fight scene for the play "What Would Crazyhorse Do?"
Credit Melodie Edwards

The controversial play “What Would Crazyhorse Do?” recently made its national debut in Laramie, of all places. Playwright and Lakota member Larissa Fasthorse said the script is her most widely read but no other theaters have actually performed it until now. She said that had a lot to do with the play's subject matter.

Racial purity.

Early in the play, after grieving the death of their grandfather, twins Calvin and Journey got a knock on their door.

“We don’t want any more funeral food!” shouted Journey.

At the door was a woman and her bodyguard. She handed them her business card.

“Anyone could make a fake business card,” said Calvin.

“Seriously, who makes a Ku Klux Klan business card,” said Evan. She’s the Klan’s imperial dragon, come to find out. “I’ve got hundreds of them.” The crowd roared with laughter.

The twins were the last two members of a fictitious South Dakota tribe and the imperial dragon and her bodyguard were there to blackmail the twins into dancing in a powwow promoting the preservation of racial bloodlines, indigenous and white.

Not the kind of thing audiences are used to laughing about…

“So you’re affiliated with the man who ran the Klan?” asked Calvin.

“We are the Klan,” said Bodyguard Rebel. The twins laugh in his face. “This never used to happen when we wore the robes,” he said almost as an aside. This time, the crowd doesn’t know whether to laugh and so decides not to.

Like I said, not your typical small town theater production. 

Explaining why she chose this script, Relative Theatrics founder, and director Anne Mason, who performs the part of the Klan's imperial dragon, said, a couple years back, she read a story in the newspaper about a white man shooting two Native Americans at a rehab center in Riverton.

“I thought why have I not been exposed to plays that show the Native American perspective, which is something that is so pertinent and relevant, especially to Wyoming audiences?”

So Mason started looking for some. That's when she discovered, “What Would Crazyhorse Do?”

“I just thought, this is a Relative Theatrics play," said Mason. "We need to do this.”

“This company, when they contacted me, I was like, you mean Laramie, right?” laughed Playwright Larissa Fasthorse. “I've been to Laramie.”

Fasthorse said while the play has been read lots of times around the country, this is the first stage production. (Another one started in Kansas city last week.) 

She said that's because it's strong medicine.

“I watch audiences, they laugh really loudly and then they, you see that cringing silence because they're like, oh, was I supposed to laugh? Should I not laugh? And that's what I love because the goal of this play is to change the way you look at things and change the way you think.”

And the crazy thing is, the story was inspired by actual history. In a South Dakota museum, Fasthorse discovered a flier promoting a Klan-sponsored powwow from the late 1920’s.

“That just blew my mind,” said Fasthorse. “One, why does the Klan want a powwow and two, who are the Native people who would dance at such a thing? You know, who'd say, yeah, I'll come dance with the Klan?”

Fasthorse found tribal elders who said people danced because Klan members were neighbors and they asked them to.

Then Fasthorse started exchanging emails with a Klan sect working to improve the organization’s image. They told her things like, “'It's about love, not hate. We just take our pride in our culture, the same way you do. Our culture just happen to be white.' And I started getting freaked out because I realized a lot of these things I've heard in indigenous circles because preserving race is a real issue. We lose Indigenous races off this planet all the time.”

16-year-old Crow and Northern Cheyenne member Talissa Littlesun starred in the play as Journey and this was relevant stuff to her. Most of the Northern Cheyenne speakers of her tribe are elderly and there's real fear of losing the language forever. And Littlesun said she's seeing more racism in the news.

“Now with the new president and these new laws and stuff, everything is changing. And I feel like people are kind of being hateful. And I don't like it.”

Playwright Fasthorse requests that if at all possible, Native Americans play all the Native American parts in her plays. She said, like Littlesun, they bring their own stories to these intense characters. But she said most theaters aren't willing to take the time to find native actors. It took Director Anne Mason six months to cast this play... emailing, calling, meeting with native groups.

Talking after the show, Northern Arapaho Piram Duran talked about his audition.

“I don't think I did very good. I think that [she] liked this voice,” he said and the crowd cracks up. “So I got the part, you know. It's been a little tough the first time, doing any of this.”

And it was the first time acting for Littlesun too. And that's the point said Fasthorse, to get more Native Americans on stage.

“If you're a Native American person interested in acting, you can wait 30 years before a role comes up specifically for you.”

For Littlesun and Director Mason, the experience opened up future possibilities for both of them.

“I would want to try out for parts that aren't just for Native Americans because that would be great for me and also great for our people. I'm actually going to do theater next year in high school," said Littlesun.

Listening nearby, Mason cheered. She said she’s excited to start casting Native Americans in other roles that don't specify race, too.

But no matter how far Talissa Littlesun goes with her acting career, it’s unlikely she’ll ever see another script as evocative as “What Would Crazyhorse Do?”