By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff
NEW YORK - Kimberly Guerrero has a message for all her friends in Indian country.
''I want to put a shout out to all my people out there, all my peeps that I haven't had a chance to see for so long. Tell them I love them and miss them and tell them to come out to New York and see me,'' Guerrero said.
Guerrero's friends have to come to see her because she can't leave the city - she's performing in ''August: Osage County,'' a Broadway play written by Tracy Letts that was supposed to end mid-April, but is such a smash hit it's been extended until the end of the year.
Guerrero, Colville/Salish-Kootenai/Cherokee, plays Johnna Monevata, a young Cheyenne woman who is hired by the patriarch of a dysfunctional family - a poet and academic - to cook and care for his drug-addicted cancer victim wife, a spiteful, miserable character who slurs and staggers through the story lashing out at everyone around her.
Without revealing the plot, the story is a classic American family drama involving the Oklahoma couple, their three daughters and husbands/boyfriends, a teenage granddaughter, the matriarch's sister, her husband and their son, and their various issues with drugs and alcohol, suicide, incest, adultery, sexual abuse, lies and fantasies. As awful as the action is, the play is also darkly funny at times.
Thrown into this incredible stew of problems, Johnna is an island of serenity and competence, a reminder of ''the moral strength and enduring spirituality of the people who had civilized Oklahoma long before all these neurotic Europeans moved in,'' as one reviewer put it.
''The play kicks my butt in so many ways. It's eight performances a week of a three-and-a-half hour play that you can't, quote, 'act,' because every audience member deserves to get us living it up on stage so you feel the pain and brutality of the moment. At the very end, I'm saying, 'This is the way the world ends; this is the way the world ends.' I take that very seriously, so it's important to me that not just Native people, but all people somehow see my heart as Kimberly playing this role as a Native person,'' Guerrero said.
The audience looks through an invisible wall into the set - the family's three-story house where the action takes place. Although Johnna spends most of the time in her room in the attic, her presence as a kind of guardian over the horrible stuff going on below is always felt.
''I feel that Johnna is the bridge between the audience and the craziness that's happening on stage, so I listen carefully and if the audience is offended or scared about what's going on, maybe it's hitting a little too close to home; I want to be aware of that, and you might see a more compassionate Johnna that night.''
A native of Oklahoma and a graduate of the University of California - Los Angeles, Guerrero is an award-winning actress who has appeared in numerous films and television projects including ''Hildalgo,'' ''Barn Red,'' ''The Sopranos,'' ''DreamKeeper,'' ''Charmed,'' ''Escanaba in da Moonlight,'' ''Walker, Texas Ranger,'' ''Northern Exposure'' and ''Naturally Native.'' She appeared on the soap ''As the World Turns'' and played one of Jerry's girlfriends on the popular ''Seinfeld'' episode ''The Cigar Store Indian.''
For the past 14 years, Guerrero has spent her time off the set with her husband, music producer Johnny Guerrero, on reservations or at urban Indian centers working with the Akatubi Film and Music Academy, a nonprofit digital film and music academy that has trained hundreds of underprivileged Native youth in filmmaking and music recording.
Although her roots are in the theater, this is Guerrero's first time on Broadway.
''I love the role. I learn so much from Johnna. As Kimberly, I'm an extrovert, and I've learned so much from being the active listener and the introvert, which is what I aspire to be, and so I've really learned a lot about how to be quiet and flexible and listen within a conversation.''
Guerrero said she has amalgamated Johnna from elders, students and people she met growing up in Indian country who have Johnna's quiet, active listening capability.
There is a danger of Johnna being perceived as the stereotype of the quiet, meek Indian, Guerrero agreed, but there's another side to that.
''When I was in my early 20s, I had an adopted grandfather and I asked him, 'Why is it that some Indians, when they're around people they're not comfortable with, don't look them in the eye?' And he told me, 'When you look a white man in the eye, you're either going to remind him of what he's done and he'll feel guilty, or he'll feel angry, and neither of those two things do you want for your white brother. If he feels guilty, it's bad for him; if he feels angry, it's bad for you,''' Guerrero said.
''This is what my grandfather told me that his grandfather told him. We were here when they came, we're here now, and we'll be here when they go, and that's why we keep our eyes down, unless you've found a person that you can trust and you're not going to make them feel guilty or angry. Then you can engage in a conversation.''
That teaching reaches back from the late 1800s forward to today.
''I try to incorporate that into the story - Johnna is there at the beginning and she's there at the end when the family falls apart, and I think that's a beautiful metaphor. As indigenous people, I think we can be that humble listener who can say, 'OK, where are we, where have we been, and where are we going?' and lend our voice to a very hurting and confused nation called America and, indeed, the world at this point.''
Guerrero echoed what many indigenous peoples are saying - that indigenous knowledge has a lot to offer.
''Perhaps it's our time to say, 'OK, we've tried everything else, but who were we when we all lived as tribal people, when we all had a drum, when we all had a fire, when we had this community and depended on one another and love of the land and of the spirit?'''
For more about Guerrero, visit www.kimberlynorrisguer rero.com. For more about the play, visit www.augustonbroadway.com.