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Young playwrights have stories to tell

LOS ANGELES -- The voices of nine American Indian girls from the Los
Angeles area were heard loud and clear when plays they wrote were presented
Jan. 21 at the Autry National Center's Wells Fargo Theatre in Griffith
Park.

The girls, between the ages of 9 and 16, developed the scripts at workshops
created by Tom Kellogg, artistic director for the Autry's Young Native
Playwrights Project.

After learning the basics of writing and polishing their scripts with the
help of professionals working in television, film and theater, the works
were read on stage by Native performers -- most of which had also served as
mentors.

The lineup included Tonantzin Carmelo, Tongva/Mexica, nominated for best
actress at this year's Screen Actors Guild Awards for her role as Thunder
Heart Woman in the television miniseries, "Into the West"; Delanna Studi,
Cherokee, whose credits include Talks A Lot in the ABC miniseries,
"Dreamkeeper"; Elena Finney, Mescalero/Apache/Tarascan, star of "Kino and
Teresa," an adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" set in a Taos pueblo in the
1600s; Thirza Defoe, Ojibwe/Oneida, who will star as Sacagawea in the
upcoming production of "Stone Heart: Everyone Loves a Journey West"; Yvonne
Fisher, Cherokee, currently starring in the title role of Sylvia at the
Sierra Madre Playhouse; Lidia Pires, a veteran actress with numerous
professional credits, including a role in "Kino and Teresa"; Rhiana Yazzie,
Navajo and a professional writer previously associated with the Wakiknabe
Native Theatre Company in Albuquerque, N.M.; and Jaisey Bates, an actress
now studying screenwriting.

This is the first time in the project's five-year history that all the
scriptwriters and most of the mentors were female.

"Connecting the young writers with some of the most talented Native
actresses working today produced a powerful experience," Kellogg said.

The collection of plays was also surprisingly dramatic, said his associate,
Myra Donnelly. She cited "The Rose of Peace" as an example, in which
10-year-old writer Della Mendivil painted the scene of a dystopia with
graffiti-spraying worms and butterfly gangs who rob honey from bees.

The themes focused strongly on relationships of all types.

"A key component of the plays is the use of metaphorical characters from
nature," Kellogg said. "Through that writers are able to tell stories about
their own concerns, aspirations and dreams."

California State University at Fullerton film student Leya Hale was among
the first group of scriptwriters when the Young Native Playwrights Project
began at the Southern California Indian Center five years ago. She returned
as a mentor this year.

"The experience I had in 2002 helped me to prepare for film school at Cal
State Fullerton," Hale said. "I hope that by sharing my knowledge and
experience with the participants I can help them keep an open mind and
teach them they have many options in playwriting."

That's the kind of connection that inspires Kellogg and Donnelly.

"Her return as a mentor has given us all a great sense of pride that the
work with which we are engaged is making a difference," Kellogg said.

They hope to find partners who will help fund similar workshops in other
urban and rural American Indian communities. A test flight to the Coeur
d'Alene Tribal School in northern Idaho last fall drew praise from everyone
involved, including performing arts students from the University of Idaho
who participated in the project.

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In addition to the actresses above, this year's mentors included writer and
director Kathy Peltier, a First Americans in the Arts board member with an
eye out for young talent.

"All of these women, and so many more not mentioned, have played a vital
role in the growth of the Young Native Playwrights Project," Kellogg told
an audience packed with the young writers' beaming parents, grandparents
and siblings. "Their success sets a beautiful standard for the girls and
young women whose plays we are honoring today."

The lone male mentor was actor, producer, writer and director Andrew Roa,
who has worked extensively in film, television and stage. Other actors who
participated in the readings were Kevin Sifuentes and Red Savage.

Young Native Playwrights is a project of the Autry's Native Voices, a
theater company devoted to developing and producing new works for the stage
by American Indians. Jean Bruce Scott and Randy Reinholz, Choctaw, founded
it in 2000 as a supportive place for writers to develop their work.

"There really is a feeling of a center, a sacred space, here at the Autry
that allows many of us exploring and sharing in the creation of Native
theatre to do so with great hope and high expectations," Kellogg said.

Young Native Playwrights 2006

PHYLICIA BACA, 9, NAVAJO: "HOW TO BE LOVED AND RESPECTED"

COLLEEN HOWARD, 14, SIOUX: "EYES OF LOVE"

MADALYN MAINHARDT, 16, SANTA YNEZ BAND OF CHUMASH: "THE WORLD IS YOURS"

DELLA MENDIVIL, 10, TOHONO O'ODHAM: "THE ROSE OF PEACE"

JACKIE MENESES, 11, TAOS PUEBLO/OGLALA LAKOTA: "CHANGING COLORS"

SAVANNAH OTTESON, 11, TAOS PUEBLO: "MY FREEDOM"

HEATHER SINGER, 11, NAVAJO: "THE FLOWER'S FRIENDSHIP"

JESSICA WINNIE, 15, NAVAJO/PIMA/SENECA: "WORRY FREE"

SARAH WINNIE, 14, NAVAJO/PIMA/SENECA: "IT WASN'T MEANT TO HAPPEN"