A group of Native American high schoolers visiting the University of Wyoming for a recruitment program walked out of the production of a theater performance last week during a recruitment program event.
Incoming American Indian Director Angela Jaime attended the play as a coordinator for the Native American Summer Institute. She said she and the 40 students were shocked when the musical comedy The Fantasticks took a sudden turn midway through.
“They came out onto the stage wearing war paint. One of them had a blow-up tomahawk,” Jaime said. “And the headdress and all of it was again as if, as always, somehow Native people are somehow savage, violent, aggressive human beings. Not even human beings.”
Interim Theater Director Margaret Wilson said the play is a classic, performed on Broadway since the 60’s. She said, like many Shakespeare plays, it uses stereotypes offensive to modern ears. Wilson said she recognizes the theater should have prepared students for that in advance.
“We did not provide sufficient context for these students, many of whom may not have seen theater. Not only are we sorry but we’d like to engage in dialogue with them.”
But American Indian Studies Director Jaime said a dialogue would only make matters worse. She says, in letters from the department, she was disappointed by an unwillingness to use the word ‘racist’ to describe the offense.
“To further prolong what could have been more about educating the outsider and educating us as Native people, we weren’t going to expose our kids to it any further,” said Jaime.
Department spokeswoman Kathy Kirkaldie said the play’s stage direction includes an illustration of the Native American costume to be used and, legally, the production must adhere to that. But she said, it may be time for the play to undergo revisions.
“[The students] come to the theater to experience the play world that’s within it, but then they’re made the butt of the joke. I’m incredibly sympathetic to that,” said Kirkaldie. “It’s going to have to be part of a longer conversation, and also about this play in particular. You know, it’s just closed off-Broadway after all these years, but it might be time to visit this particular scene and think about how else that work could be accomplished.”
Kirkaldie said a tour of the play around Wyoming has been canceled.
Jaime says the event didn't detract from the overall experience of the Summer Institute, however.
"Will there be some students who will be a little more reserved about coming here? Absolutely. Because as always, it wasn't the only racist issue that they had to endure over the week-long institute. But all the amazing things that we did, just overshadows all the bad things."