NEW YORK CITY ? If an American Indian face shows up in the cast of 'Saturday Night Live,' the breakthrough likely will have come at the final performance of the Four Directions Talent Search Nov. 8 in a cramped backroom theater in the trendy SoHo arts district.
Stand-up comedy with a strong Indian flavor dominated the evening of presentations by eight finalists chosen from dozens of performers in the two-month-long program of regional showcases. But the network executives, casting agents and directors who crowded into PSNBC (Performance Space NBC) in a caf? and arts center also saw short dramatic readings and even a spectacular mime.
The Oneida Indian Nation sponsored the search along with the NBC television network and corporate sponsors Cervalis and IBM in an effort to bring Indian talent to the attention of the mass entertainment industry. Only time will tell if participants make the jump to national television, but an Oneida spokesman called the event an unprecedented 'opportunity for American Indians to be seen and be heard.
'We envisioned a way for Indian people to make a difference in how our cultures are portrayed and perceived in film and television ? a way for Indian people to share their own ideas of what it means to be Indian, and how our cultures and traditions fit into today's society,' Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said.
The high-pressure audition didn't appear to intimidate the performers. They gave the network guests, including some from 'Saturday Night Live,' a full blast of reservation, and urban Indian humor.
Vanessa Shortbull, an Oglala Lakota College student and beauty pageant winner, fantasized about a Miss Rez beauty contest. 'My talent is bingo and cutting commodity cheese.'
Robin Van Dyke, an Ottawa and a radio personality in Benton Harbor, Mich., drew on her experience as the adopted child of 'small white people. I looked different from everyone else. It gives people the right to come up and ask, what are you?'
James Ruel, an Ojibwe from Milwaukee, threw some of the most pointed barbs in describing his encounters with the Indian stereotype. 'People say, 'You're Indian so you must be a good tracker.' I say, 'I'm an urban Indian, so I guess that makes me a stalker.''
In a visit to Germany, he said 'They kept saying ,'How, Chief.' So I said back, 'Heil, dictator.''
For a change of pace, the accomplished actress Rosalie Jones, Pembina Chippewa from Brockport, N.Y., who performs as Daystar, gave a monologue about her mother's thoughts as a cleaning lady in the fine houses of her hometown. Trina Sxwithul'txw, Penelakut from Vancouver, British Columbia, in a few brief strokes, created the character of a lusty woman in a frustrating marriage.
Don Kelly, a communications professional with Canada's Assembly of First Nations and a veteran comic, did double duty as emcee. After Sxwithul'txw's performance, he remarked, 'She has one of those West Coast names ? It means, 'Buy me a vowel!''
Tribal tradition received homage and reached new heights of a sort in a stunning mime by Abel Silvas, Juaneno from San Diego, Calif. Dressed in animal pelts, Silvas portrayed the transformation of a tribal hero into an eagle, with a muscular control that even gave his jaw the appearance of a jutting beak. Asked later about his training, Silvas said he had spent 10 years with the famed French mime Marcel Marceau.
The most surprising act, however, came at the end, when Chaz Chilcote, Luiseno from Carlsbad, Calif., twitched onto the stage in a leisure suit and the accent of a fugitive from the 'Sopranos' television show. 'Whadya expect?' he said. 'I grew up in a casino.' His act drew one of the biggest laughs of the night from the front row where Halbritter and Oneida Gaming Commission Chairman Keller George were sitting.
'An Indian playing an Italian,' emcee Kelly said. 'What a refreshing switch.'
Kelly also announced winners in the writing category: Bruce King, an Oneida of Wisconsin from Santa Fe, N.M, for his screenplay, 'The Woods Will Harbor,' and 'an Evening at the Warbonnet,' a screen adaptation of the stage play; Darwin Seed, Cree from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for his screenplay 'Dweller by a Dark Stream,' and Suzanna Armajo, Northern Arapahoe of St. Stephens, N.Y., for her essay 'Am I Being Indian or Dysfunctional?'
In another audition of sorts, Skydancer.tv, Inc. a new media company funded by the Oneida Nation, presented a 12-minute trailer for its first production, coverage of the American Indian World Dance Championships filmed in HDTV format. Company founders Dan C. Jones, Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, and Sonny Skyhawk, Sicangu Lakota, introduced the work as 'cutting edge technology.' Noting problems with the sound system, Skyhawk added, 'Sometimes the cutting edge is the bleeding edge.'
The finalists came to New York by bus from Oneida, where 20 semi-finalists performed the previous night at the Showroom of the Oneida Nation's Turning Stone Casino Resort.
Semi-finalists, selected during five regional showcases, included Mitch Factor of Shawnee, Okla., Maynard Gabriel of Nedrow, N.Y.; Matt Herne of Akwesasne, N.Y.; LeWayne McQueen of Ely, Nev., Marla Nuani of Cache, Okla. and Anthony Parker of Golden, Colo.
In spite of the high spirits, the shadow of the World Trade Center tragedy fell on the evening, as it did on the course of the talent search. Vanessa Shortbull recalled she didn't make her public performance in her first tryout at the Denver regional showcase ? it fell on Sept. 11.
Winners there were selected after a private audition, and the evening show was cancelled. The search moved another showcase from West Palm Beach to Pennsylvania to reduce long-distance travel.
At the end of the evening in New York City, performers boarded the bus to pay homage at the ghostly, searchlighted wreckage of Ground Zero.