Native Voices at the Autry

Two one-man plays by Robert Owens-Greygrass

Review by Dale Reynolds

Spread out over two evenings, Robert Owens-Greygrass, a storyteller of Lakota Nation, French and Irish extraction, has spent years performing around the world the complex tales of American Indian histories, his own as well as his ancestors.  Calling the USA “Turtle Island” and white folk “ghosts” (for their light complexions), Mr. Owens-Greygrass weaves a fine tapestry with his fine-spun tales, with useful minimalist direction by Kevin Sifuentes (Hopi Nation).

The Gene Autry Museum of the West and the Wells Fargo Theatre, situated adjacent to it, are to be commended for their emphasis on Native American cultural values, helping those voices to be heard to both Indian and non-Indian ears.  Because of long-standing racism and a desire of some to culturally annihilate these peoples’ histories and memories, we European-Americans don’t know enough about this put-upon minority.  But by watching the fine work demonstrated by this performer, we can all learn more.

The two nights are divided into “Walking on Turtle Island” and “Ghostlands of an Urban NDN.”  (“NDN” is Native-shorthand for “Indian.”) But the stories clearly can go anywhere he wishes, each and everyone being complete unto themselves.  “Turtle Island” is narrated by Lyeska, a powerful trickster-guide sent by the Great Mystery to help human beings.  On the reservation, they include “Res Boy,” “Dad”, “Running Bull Elk,”  “Grandpa and Grandma” and Running Bull Elk’s cousin, “Mosquito.”  He interweaves their individual tales into a family-narrative.  

Next, in Minnesota, we meet an 80-year-old Ojibwe woman, Oona; then her as a child; as a young woman (17-35); then Round Earth, Oona’s mother, some other kinsmen, Grandfather and a paleface Indian agent.

We travel next to Southern Oregon to meet Tecumtum, a warrior English-named, Tyee John.  Finally, we meet Jesse White Toes, a down-on-his-luck mixed-blood Indian.

Each of the stories are acted out, with nominal costume and lighting changes, while the storyteller spins his spider-tales.

The next evening, “Ghostlands of an Urban NDN” has a larger cast of characters, dealing as it does with the vast urban streets of America—the Ghostlands.  We meet a hitchhiking Vietnam vet; older and younger versions of Mr. Greygrass; his inner NDN and White Childs; nurses; counselors for drug and alcohol addiction; Angel, a Puerto Rican girl; an ex-wife; his Grandma Greygrass, the holder of wisdom, who ironically died the very morning that critics were in the audience; Boston Gracie, a racist counselor;, an Irish Priest; and some New Age hippie-types.

As such, the evenings are theatre at its most basic:  human tales of real folk, interwoven with Native American religious rituals and singing.  If there is any fly-in-this-powerful-ointment, it’s that Mr. Owens-Greygrass has not trained his vocal instrument to allow for the great jumps of character that he cleverly inhabits – as a result, a certain monotony sets in, undercutting his power.   But aside from that, the learning curve for us non-Indigenous folk is long, instructive and fun.  His kind of performer should not be missed.

The shows close March 18th, 2012, at the Autry Museum/Wells Fargo Theatre in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, 4700 Western Heritage Way, 90027.  Tickets:  323.667.2000×354 or www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org .