JERRY RAPIER (Director/Producer) – some thoughts as we head into rehearsal for Julie Jensen’s SHE WAS MY BROTHER this week (October 28-November 7 in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner.
I have wanted to produce one of Julie Jensen’s plays for years but the stars have never quite aligned. That is, until I was just a few pages into my first read of SHE WAS MY BROTHER, and I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. In a good way. In a we-have-do-this-play way.
I asked Julie why she wrote it – here’s a teaser (you’ll hear more from her next week in the virtual pages of this blog). For her, it’s ‘about one of those moments in history when everything could have changed. If the first white people to study the Zuni people had told the truth about how this and most native tribes treated transgender people, everything could have been different. Instead, they lied about it or refused to speak, and that meant that this information took another hundred years to come out.
[In the 1880's] There was an actual person in the Zuni Pueblo, a man who dressed and behaved as a woman. That person [We'wha] was taken to Washington, D.C., to meet the Congress, the Supreme Court and even the President. He passed as a woman. I loved that story and wanted to know what was behind that event.’
SHE WAS MY BROTHER follows two Victorian anthropologists – the officious yet maternal Tullis and the sickly yet arrogant Wilson (based on the real-life Matilda Coxe Stevenson and Frank Hamilton Cushing, the first to study the Zuni) – into their relationship(s) with Lamana (based on the real-life We’wha).
Both Tullis and Wilson fall in a sort-of-love with Lamana (a variation on Lhamana, the Zuni word for two-spirit). Tullis loves her as a woman, Wilson loves him as a man – which may make this the most unlikely love story ever told. Truth is stranger than fiction.
The actors (Joe Debevc, April Fossen, Jay Perry) joined me on a road trip to the Zuni Pueblo in Northwestern New Mexico where SHE WAS MY BROTHER is set. We agreed on the first weekend in August. The goal was to develop a greater sense of place, of culture, of story.
They kept a journal to share with you (a shorter version of which appears in the October 2010 issue of Catalyst Magazine).
APRIL FOSSEN (who portrays Tullis, inspired by Matilda Coxe Stevenson)
August 6, 2011
The drive to Zuni is a study in extremes. So many different landscapes – green and blooming mountain canyons, brushy desert, almost barren dusty flats, dramatic rocky hills. It’s one of the things I love about living in the West – so much of the ‘wild’ is within a day’s drive. I come from a long line of outdoors-men and -women on my Dad’s side. Wanderers, explorers, backpackers, fishermen – people who BY CHOICE lived and still live in remote areas. So, there’s a part of me that understands the appeal of it. A part of me that wants a week-long vacation in a cabin by a lake with no phones or electronics. But a week is as much as (and probably more than) I could take. The big sky and silence are food for the soul, but it’s not what sustains me on a daily basis. I need the urban rush to keep my mind engaged.
Zuni itself is surprising. Surprisingly lush. Much more so than any of the other reservations we drive through. And yet, it seems just as depressed, economically, as the others. Mangy dogs roam the streets, homes are small and run-down, what business there is is small and generally tourist-focused. But the people we meet are warm and friendly and generous.
Our first stop in the village, at the end of the drive, is the A:Shiwi Museum, and it is also surprising. A nondescript, unassuming building filled with treasures and a vision of life that is so unique. The [real-life people the] characters that Jay and I will play figure prominently in the museum. The wounds their studies left: the exposure to the world, the Americanization they brought with them seem to still be fresh and painful. Standing there in the museum I learn from Jerry that the Lhamana are no longer really acknowledged in the tribe. Their place in the Zuni story has been basically erased. And there is no evidence of them there in the museum It’s such a shame – the concept of the Lhamana is such a balanced and clear-minded idea. I would have thought it would be something the Zuni would be proud of. I imagine Americanization has something to do with this loss.
August 7, 2010
Today we visited the actual Zuni Pueblo and the mission built there in the early 1600′s. We also had the opportunity to meet some truly incredible people. The Pueblo itself was so different from what I expected. It seems there was a fire a few years ago, so much of it has been rebuilt. They wanted to preserve the look of the original to a certain degree, but they used stonework rather than adobe for the facade of the structures. It still has essentially the same look, but was kind of unexpected. One of the things that surprised me the most in the Pueblo was the quiet. It is not ruins, the homes and buildings are inhabited and used. There were people all around during our visit. But it was still so quiet. No loud music. No barking dogs. No yelling. The dwellings are so close together it feels claustrophobic to a modern urban-dweller like myself, but I’m amazed at the feeling of peace there. Since there were no traditional dances happening, we were allowed to go into the plaza and walk around. It was an honor to be allowed into such a sacred communal space.
Our visit to the [Catholic] Mission church brought up a lot of mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, I find cultural and religious imperialism appalling in any situation. The fact that the Spaniards destroyed underground Zuni kivas makes me sick. The fact that the Zuni were forced to take on Catholicism when they had a clear religious belief system of their own is disgusting. But the Mission church is beautiful and its worn-down condition is a shame. The Zuni put some of themselves into it – some of their symbols, some of their artwork. They added on to the sacred symbology of this other religion, and made it a place that had some meaning to them. The combination and juxtaposition is striking. One person told us they want to remove the murals and just let the building fall into ruin. Others say they want to restore it. I spoke to an artist who is Catholic and said she volunteers at the church – tries to keep it clean and always lights a candle. So, I don’t know what the real story is of what will happen with the church. There are clearly mixed feelings about it in the community.
After visiting the Pueblo, we met up with a charming and generous man, Jimmy, who carves fetishes. He took us to his home, told us his story and his own understanding of certain aspects of Zuni culture and history and showed us his method for carving fetishes. His 16-year old daughter does traditional weaving and showed us how she does that work. And his 15-year old son showed us the traditional beehive oven he had just finished building and talked to us about how they use it. All of it was fascinating to learn about. The family was so generous with their time and their home. So welcoming. It’s interesting, since Zuni history is passed down orally, to discover that everyone seems to have a slightly different version of the stories. Jimmy’s family talked to us about so many different things. It really made me think about how this society works so differently from our own. The sense of community is astounding. The lack of a need for space and privacy is fascinating to me. And the feeling of history and ownership of this place is justified.
We tried, this afternoon, to buy some souvenirs and found things were very expensive in the established shops, but not so much when purchasing from the artists themselves. I think a lot of people are being taken advantage of. The Zuni people are remarkable artists and craftspeople. They have a right to make a living from what they are skilled at. But even though we only purchased items from artisans directly, I don’t think, ultimately, that our few tourist dollars make any kind of difference in quality of life.
August 8, 2010
What an incredible weekend this has been. What an amazing opportunity to spend a couple of days immersed in that place – seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, experiencing. I’ve played historical characters before – it’s rare to have the chance to walk where they walked and see what they saw – especially in a situation where much of it is unchanged from her time to mine. I thought about Matilda [Coxe] Stevenson and the character of Tullis a lot this weekend. How strange it must have been to come in as an outsider and try to live among the Zuni people. To try to study and understand their ways that are so different from ours. And were even more different before Stevenson and others like her arrived and brought an American influence. And how confident she must have been that what she was doing was right, or even necessary. I would label it presumptuous, but that seems judgmental. It’s hard to know what the real intent was and hard to see things from the perspective of that time period. I wonder how Matilda viewed the Spanish influence – whether she saw the Mission as a positive or negative force in the community. I wonder what she thought, on a personal, not a scientific level, of the rituals and celebrations. I’d love to read some of her books – to hear her voice from the page. I also wonder if she was ultimately aware that the work she participated in had a lasting – and not necessarily good – influence on the Zuni people. I wonder, especially, how she would feel about the Zuni denying the existence of Lhamana in their history.
Monday, October 4, 2010
JAY PERRY (who portrays Wilson, inspired by Frank Hamilton Cushing)
‘So far, so amazing.’ This place is like going back in time. Like three hundred years. Adobe and stone buildings and stray dogs walking down the dirt roads. I am in an ancient city. I can’t do it justice with words. Everything is simple, lots of trees and the enchanting smells of the desert filling my senses. We are staying at the Inn at Halona, right in the middle of Zuni Pueblo – The Middle Place.
Yesterday, as we drove to Zuni, we passed through Shiprock, the seat of the Navajo Nation. At first I saw the large, modern buildings of the University [of New Mexico extension campus] and public administration, but as we continued down the highway on this dusty, hot and barren desert mesa, we came upon a large cluster of block homes. They were very small, all of a uniform construction evocative of a housing project, and obviously very poor. I’m not sure what I expected to see on my first trip to a reservation, but the stories of a hard life, poor living conditions and the dominance of American influence all congealed in a very tactile way as we passed through Shiprock. We drove on toward our destination of Zuni with, what I assumed was a much better idea of what to expect when we arrived there.
Zuni is different. It is, by comparison, a paradise. It seems to me that, while it is also a very poor place, the people are less affected by that than perhaps we were. A few times Mark [April's husband] mentioned that it was a little bit hard to see the living conditions of these people. I felt that possibly that was less important to them than to us. We had the pleasure of visiting the home of a local who was a traditional fetish carver. He said (paraphrasing) that for the Zuni, life has always been hard. That what is hard in our estimation is perhaps normal in theirs.
‘Elahkwa’ means thank you in Zuni and I said it a lot as soon as I learned it. The night we arrived, we drove directly to the museum and, though we got there with only twenty minutes or so before it was supposed to close, the woman in the office welcomed us and invited us to take our time so that we could have a real look around. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was our first example of the Zuni hospitality I’ve read about, something which permeated the entire experience. It never seemed as if anyone was in a hurry anyway.
I dove right into the feast of information, history and art of the museum. The building itself had been completely unassuming on the exterior – simple adobe – like a dull egg containing a profound treasure. I immediately recognized that the symbols painted on a large wall just inside the entrance represented the many clans of Zuni I’d read about in [Frank Hamilton] Cushing’s Selected Writings. As I moved through the museum and read the history of the Zuni on this land, I became more and more aware that I was standing in the middle of living antiquity, an awareness Cushing himself must have come to very quickly as well. One passage inscribed into a wall-mounted plaque struck me. It explained that our modern time is considered by the Zuni to be an era of American influence.Â Just as, in the past, there was an era of Spanish influence, which began in the sixteenth century. I later had the revelation that the Zuni people have a sense of history that is much deeper than ours and that their culture could very well be here long after ours. A deep sense of honor and respect for these people came over me in my short time at the museum and by the time we finished our tour, I felt I had stepped back in time to 1897, with all the giddy sense of discovery and wonder that must have been a part of Cushing’s – and thus Wilson’s – experience in his first moments in Zuni.
JOE DEBEVC (who portrays Lamana, inspired by We’Wha)
We traveled at an ungodly hour on endless roads to reach this strange new world. Each of us had his or her own reason for making the journey. We were here to explore, to uncover myths, the knowledge of the ages, to dredge out some source of inspiration. Magic.
But where? Maybe in the ruins of a Conquistador forced Catholic church hidden among the murals vibrating on the walls. Stashed in the tour guides pocket next to the LDS pamphlet running with gentile ink. No. Back at the inn where the obvious is hidden in every corner? Uh, uh. There are no arrowheads here. Just check out the website.
Perhaps the dogs in the streets will show us the way, nosing the trails, the flies whispering directions in their ears, warning them of the afternoon monsoon looming on the mesa summit, drenching the stone couple guarding the flood lines. Watch out for the dog shit or you’ll end up looking for a liquor store and shopping at the Arab occupied trading posts. Free coffee. No thanks.
For sale. Everything is for sale. Stale bread is welcome. The town, decorated in poverty stares at us through eyes of resentment but sees us with forgiveness. It’s hard to overlook the painful cooperation. Harder still to hear the un committed re telling of the legends. Everyone is for sale. And we’re so hungry.
The cost of maintaining a society that has existed here, right here, for 7,000 years speaking a language untainted by outer influences is infringing on the dignity of a noble group of people trying to be hip without being hypocritical.
There are no gifts of recognition piled high at this altar. They have been waiting in this epic line for eons now. The spirits float above the beehive ovens, the excavated mines dripping with fat salt tears, imprinting their souls forever in the sand.
Where now? Home. There are no fond good byes as we leave. No one really seems to notice or care that we were here. We left nothing. I try not to feel guilty as I steal away with my blessed apple coral bear fetish. I got mine.
SHE WAS MY BROTHER runs October 28-November 7 in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner.
Salt Lake City downtown alternative theatre featuring local playwrights, LGBT, socially conscious drama, new plays, musical theatre and staged readings.