Special to ICT
Playwright Dillon Chitto knows from personal experience that Indigenous people can be funny.
He gets most of his inspiration for the plays he writes from his family, friends and the people he met growing up as Mississippi Choctaw and Isleta and Laguna Pueblo in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“Some of the funniest people I know are Native,” he told ICT recently, “so I like to share that world with audiences, especially those who may not have been to an Indigenous play before, or even know that Indigenous theater exists.”
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Chitto is drawing accolades in the theater world and beyond after a string of plays that draw rave reviews, starting with his first, “Bingo Hall,” in 2017, to “Pueblo Revolt,” which won the Rella Lossy Award for best script by an emerging playwright for a work that premieres in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A member of the nonprofit BoHo Theatre Company in Chicago, he’s been named one of 10 recipients of the 2022 Sundance Institute Uprise Grant, which recognizes emerging artists of color, and he recently was named one of four writers to a season-long residency for the Playwrights Unit at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
And he’s working on his next play, “Pigeon,” about a group of gay urban Natives on the northside of Chicago who are shaken when a mysterious figure appears.
“I think it’s important to show stories of Indigenous joy and victories, and I hope my plays do that,” Chitto said. “There are times in my life when something peculiar happens, or I hear something, and I stop and think, ‘Huh, I need this to be in a play.’
“Part of being a playwright is knowing human nature,” he said. “There have been times when I write a joke or a plotline, and then I come to learn that what I wrote actually happened to my cousin, or brother, or friend.”
“Pueblo Revolt,” is set to premiere in San Rafael, California, during the 2022-2023 season at the AlterTheater, which focuses on Indigenous works and other works by people of color.
“I believe that Dillon is going to become one of the most-produced playwrights in the American theater,” said Jeanette Harrison, of Onondaga descent, who served as co-founder and artistic director of AlterTheater for more than a decade before moving in October 2022 to become artistic director for Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon.
“His work is funny, touching, surprising, heartbreaking, and rooted in Indigenous family and culture.”
‘Powerful and hilarious’
Chitto is Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians on his father’s side and Isleta and Laguna Pueblo on his mother’s side, and he grew up in Santa Fe.
He received a degree in history from Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and a degree in biblical literature from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He now lives in Chicago, but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“I draw on the experiences I and my friends and family have,” he said. “Community is such a big part of our culture, so I try to think outside myself. I try to think, ‘How can I be of service to others?’ My plays are centered around small communities, whether it is a small family, extended family, or chosen family. They are all important communities where the characters come to know who they are by their place in that community. I feel that the same is true for me.”
His first play, “Bingo Hall,” was developed through the Native Voices program at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, where it was presented during the 2017 Festival of New Plays and premiered at Native Voices in March 2018, according to the New Play Exchange website.
It tells the story of a young bingo-caller in a Pueblo community who must decide whether to leave home to pursue a college degree or stay with his people.
“I was blown away by ‘Bingo Hall’ — a charming coming-of-age comedy about growing up and the debate between leaving that Pueblo or staying and supporting your local community,’” said Vickie Ramirez, Tuscarora Nation and originally from Six Nations, who has been living and working as a playwright in New York City since the early 1990s.
“It was fresh, funny as all get out, and incredibly empowering,” she said. “Dillon writes about his community with such humor, fun, and a sense of joy about being Indigenous that you can't help but recognize the characters he's writing.”
Ramirez worked with Chitto at the Native Voices festival in 2017, and attended a playwright retreat with him and other playwrights.
“After Dillon's reading, I left the theater happy and excited,” she said. “After that, I made sure to forward any opportunities I found, and I referred his plays to many of my contacts in the theater world who are always asking about new Native writers.”
His current play, “Pueblo Revolt,” features Indigenous brothers in a comedy set in the 1600s during the Colonial Spanish rule of what is now New Mexico.
“They must question their beliefs, morality, and what is necessary to ensure the survival of their people and family when the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 begins,” according to New PLay Exchange.
The play was commissioned by AlterTheater’s AlterLab, a yearlong playwright residency program.
“I first heard of Dillon through an AlterLab alum, Larissa FastHorse, who recommended I should keep an eye on him,” Harrison told ICT. “Dillon was in the early stages of writing his first play, ‘Bingo Hall,’ and he was creating very funny, very contemporary Indigenous work.”
The AlterLab asks writers to take creative risks to write a new play during the residency and to support other writers, Harrison said.
“Dillon named multiple challenges, including that he wanted to write a small-cast play – he created a two-hander, about two brothers – and that he wanted to have a unit set, one location,” Harrison said. “From the moment he brought in his first pages, I and the other writers in his cohort were cracking up.”
The season was delayed by COVID-19, which limited interaction among the group mostly to Zoom and delayed the premiere until the upcoming season.
“This play has already won the Rella Lossy Award, and I think that's just the beginning,” Harrison said. “I love ‘Pueblo Revolt’ because of the characters first and foremost — the awkward teen crushing hard on a boy who doesn't know he exists, and his older brother, so protective. The brothers' relationship is what first pulled me in when Dillon began bringing in pages. Then, the question of, ‘How did everyday people, people like us, live through extraordinary circumstances?’”
She continued, “Dillon created a powerful and hilarious play, with complicated characters. And to me, that's what Native representation needs — Natives being our full, complicated selves.”
Comedy is not all that’s ahead for Chitto.
In addition to the AlterLab, he worked on the first Indigenous Writers Collaborative at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,
And he’s a teacher in AlterTheater’s Arts Learning Project for Native Youth, a virtual and in-person theater arts program for Native students. He has also designed and led comedy workshops for students in grades 7-12, Harrison said.
Chitto said he was approached by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for a reading of “Pueblo Revolt,” which marked the first time he had heard the play read aloud in a room.
“It was also mind-blowing that a theater such as Goodman would approach me and want to give a public reading of an Indigenous play,” he said. “It was also my first real professional reading to happen here in Chicago, so it was an incredible entrance into Chicago theater.”
Chitto’s works may blaze a trail at the Goodman Theatre, which has made efforts to include more Indigenous works.
“Our artistic staff has been actively working to help develop and program more plays and projects involving Indigenous artists and stories for the Goodman’s stages,” Denise Schneider, the theater’s director of communications, told ICT. “This has been an area of deficit here at the Goodman, and we are working to improve our relationship with the Native creative communities. With Dillon’s play, as well as Mohegan theater-maker Madeline Sayet’s ‘Where we Belong’ last month, we have begun the journey and look forward to welcoming more to our stages.”
He is now also serving as literary manager for the BoHo Theatre Company.
“Truthfully, Dillon is such a special person that it feels quite easy to support him and his work,” Sana Selemon, BoHo Theatre’s executive director, told ICT. “He is constantly creating beautiful plays with sharp humor and a groundedness that takes your breath away. Throughout his time as a BoHo Company member, Dillon's been engaged in the development of our literary department and I couldn't imagine having anyone else be our first literary manager. Whether it's with his writing, his jokes, or his analysis of something, Dillon is always thoughtful, smart, and looking to the future.”
Chitto said the new Sundance Institute grant will help him write his next work, “Pigeon,” which also draws on family and community.
“‘Pigeon’ is about the chosen family a group of queer Urban Natives have formed to survive the world of white heteronormativity and white queerness in the north side of Chicago,” according to a press release from the Sundance Institute about the Uprise Grant.
“The family is shaken when a mysterious figure appears, causing them to question their role in the family and society,” according to the release.
Family remains at the core of his work, he said.
“In my plays, families are important,” Chitto said. “I’ve explored extended families in ‘Bingo Hall,’ small immediate families in ‘Pueblo Revolt,’ and now chosen family in ‘Pigeon.’ ‘Pigeon,’ although sometimes critical and harsh, is my love letter to the queer community I’ve come to know and form, as well as to Chicago.
He said the project has been in the works for several years but has expanded recently.
“I’ve been inspired to write ‘Pigeon’ for a couple years but it has since grown into the larger project it is now,” said Chitto. “I’m currently still writing the first draft.”
Amber Espinosa-Jones, a senior manager at the Sundance Institute, said Chitto is just getting started.
“I am so pleased to be supporting Dillon with this grant and continuing Sundance’s long legacy of supporting Indigenous artists and theatre artists,” she said. “His writing hits you right to the core. It is fresh and complex while honoring tradition.”
“We are so excited to see where his career will go,” she said.
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