OKC Theater Festival Celebrates Native Storytelling Traditions

For many Native playwrights, storytelling and drama go hand-in-hand, with their origins going back to the beginning of time. Yet in mainstream America, there are not always venues available for Native playwrights. Oklahoma City Theatre Company’s Native American New Play Festival, however, is well on its way to establishing itself as a vehicle for showcasing Native dramatic talent.

Now in its third year, the festival was created by Richard Nelson, the former artistic director of OKC Theater Company.

"Part of our responsibilities as artists it to highlight the ethnic and cultural landscape of our state and community,” said Rachel Irick, the company’s current artistic director. “The Native American Play Festival reflects our desire to encourage the work of new artists who might be overlooked by the mainstream.”

According to Irick, the goals of the festival are to support new work and encourage Native playwrights, actors and other artists within the theater community and “to celebrate the rich culture of storytelling inherent in many Native American cultures,” she said.

Playwrights’ work is selected for the festival by a panel of readers who then recommend the finalists. The top finalist then receives a full production with the company, with the other finalists given the opportunity for staged readings that are free to the public. In order to be considered for the event, the playwrights must be on a federally recognized tribal roll.

“This year we added more opportunities for interaction between audience and artists in casual environment over lunch,” said Irick about this year’s event, “and we also added a panel discussion with the playwrights to this year's event schedule.”

This year’s festival began with a full production of Cherokee playwright Diane Glancy’s play "Salvage," which ran from June 1-9. Set in Cut Bank, Montana near the Blackfeet Reservation, the play centers on the character of Wolf, who survives a car wreck and must deals with its effects -- on both himself and the families involved. The staged reading portion of the festival included the works "Chalk in the Rain" by Bret Jones; "Broken Heart Land" by Vicki Lynn Mooney; and "Waaxe’s Law" by Mary Kathryn Nagle.

“My involvement included attending rehearsal of my play and watching the plays of all the other playwrights in the Festival,” said Mooney, Cherokee. “What I learned is The Oklahoma City Theatre Company is a thoroughly professional company with a deep pool of acting talent, sensitive directors, and helpful staff that goes to great pains to make sure that everything runs smoothly.”

Nagle, Cherokee, based her play "Waaxe’s Law" around the Ponca people of present-day White Eagle, Oklahoma. The casting included the inclusion of Ponca elder Louis Headman, who read the part of Standing Bear.

“It's important to share these stories with one another because although we are all Native, our experience of being and living Native is so drastically different,” said Nagle. “Every tribe has their own story and history-- and each one of those stories are so important to share.”

Jeremy Tanequodle, an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe and of Creek, Comanche and Seminole descent, has been involved with the festival each year from its inception. For this year’s festival, Tanequodle was cast as Wolf in "Salvage." From an actor’s perspective, he said, he would recommend the festival to other actors and playwrights.

“It's a tremendous opportunity to not only get your name out there, but to continue the push to tell the wonderful stories of the Indian way,” said Tanequodle. “The Festival is only going to get better each year.”

Irick said that the Company is considering including Native singers, dancers, storytellers, visual artists and children’s events in next year's festival.

She said that the feedback on this year's festival has been incredibly positive, with audiences finding the plays and readings to be “moving, entertaining, and enlightening.” “We have had excellent audience response to our presentations," Irick said. "People who attend enjoy everything very much. It's exciting to see plays that have never had a stage before. We are witnessing world premieres of these plays. In many cases, the playwrights are present to hear their words spoken aloud by actors for the first time ever and to witness an audience's reaction.”