Why Native and Indigenous people should be the only reviewers of Native/Indigenous plays
Sinixt Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes
Recently, Ojibwe/South Asian playwright Yolanda Bonnell wrote a piece in Vice asking that white theatre critics not review her work because those critics do not have the cultural or intellectual background to understand the Indigenous lives and stories Bonnell presented on stage.
She clearly stated that all audiences were welcome, but she noted that "critics" often serve as gatekeepers, and when they negatively review a show because they don't possess the context to fully understand it, they contribute to the erasure of Indigenous stories and histories.
One week later, a follow-on article from The Guardian unwittingly made Bonnell’s point for her when it characterized Indigenous people as other minorities, simply one group among “critics of color, female critics; disabled critics; LGBTQ+ critics and working-class critics.”
The article framed her request as exclusionary and implied Bonnell saw fellow professionals who don’t look like her as “some sort of very privileged enemy.”
This response is precisely the reason Bonnell was right to make her request. Native American and Indigenous playwrights create narratives informed by cultural contexts and community histories, stories of sovereignty, family, and home.
Non-Native audiences engage with Native theatre in meaningful ways and certainly comprehend the rich and diverse stories they see on stage. Theatre criticism is a different kind of engagement, however, and recent reviews of Cherokee playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle’s work reinforce why it’s important for culturally informed reviewers to assess Indigenous theatre.
A Cherokee critic might have a different perspective on Sovereignty than I do as a Sinixt writer, but I anticipate both of us would recognize the inherent complexities of staging a story based in part on Principal Chief John Ross and Major Ridge, a discussion completely absent from published reviews. In this context, then, it is easy to support Ms. Bonnell's request to only be reviewed by people who understand the work.
Instead of empowering non-Native professional critics to assess Native and Indigenous storytelling, I propose that we review the shows ourselves. I encourage everyone to see the plays and write about the productions in ways that you find meaningful.
Submit those reviews to publications you read and, word by word, we can reshape the practice of criticism into something Native communities do for each other, without a gatekeeper among us.
Laurie Arnold, PhD, is an enrolled member of the Sinixt Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes. She is Director of Native American Studies and Associate Professor of History at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.