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Regional Reviews: Other Regions

Between Two Knees
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Review by Patrick Thomas


Shaun Taylor-Corbett
Photo by Julie Cortez
You've got to hand it to the 1491s, a collective of Native American artists and performers whose Between Two Knees is currently playing in repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. They have found a way to get a nearly all-white audience to laugh along as they remind them of the horrors their ancestors committed against native people and celebrate the concept of a sort of virtual reverse genocide, closing with a sing-along of "so long, white people." Playing with decades of racial stereotyping, it's subversive, sarcastic, snarky—and disturbing in the sneakiest of ways.

Upon entering the gorgeous and intimate Thomas Theatre, you will note the proscenium arch is adorned with several native figures. It may take you a moment to grok their provenance: one is the Chicago Blackhawks logo, another the Cleveland Indians logo, and the third is the young woman from Land O'Lakes packaging. Walk-in music includes Cher's "Half-Breed." At one point in the show you will catch the melody of "Colors of the Wind" from Disney's Pocahontas . The troupe will also appropriate a variety of memes from other cultures, including video games, "Wayne's World," the "Thriller" dance and, in an odd and very funny reappropriation, a New Age wedding ceremony which includes the odd aside of someone dying "at the hands of vengeful salmon in the Klamath River."

The title refers to two key moments in native history: the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 and the occupation of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. The story begins with the appearance of a narrator of sorts (Justin Gauthier) who introduces himself by informing us of the many Indian names he has been called, including "Big Eagle" and "Punches Kittens," before finally letting us know he is now called Larry. Joined by other cast members, Larry spins the "Wheel of Indian Massacres" (complete with the theme music from "Wheel of Fortune"), landing on several the audience has no familiarity with, before settling on the Wounded Knee incident.

As the Indians drop with each shot from a soldier's rifle, a baby is gathered up first by a passing eagle, then by two men, one of whom has disguised himself in white face. They convince the soldiers to spare the baby, but it ends up at a Catholic boarding school where it is christened Isaiah. (In the second act, another baby, generations after, is baptized in "the tears of a 1000 white women named Becky.") After suffering cruelty at the hands of an array of sadistic priests and nuns, Isaiah (Derek Garza) reaches maturity, meets another Indian woman named Irma (Shyla Lefner), and the rest of the play takes us on a wild journey through their lives and the lives of their descendants, including another Isaiah and Irma (played by Wotko Long and Sheila Tousey).

More degradations and tragic deaths follow, yet somehow the 1491s (whose name is a reference to the time before Columbus arrived and changed everything for native people) and director Eric Ting manage to keep us laughing. It would be tempting for the 1491s (ably assisted by a skilled cast) to set us up with humor and then pull the rug out from under our white privilege with these tragic moments, but their approach is much more subtle than that. The writers (Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan RedCorn and Bobby Wilson) keep the humor going almost non-stop, with the aim, I imagine, of sending us out into the night with a ticking time bomb of generational guilt. I wonder how many people will, hours or days later, after the laughter has long since faded, come to a greater realization of the horrors that were inflicted upon native people? If even one does, I think the creators of Between Two Knees will feel they have accomplished their goal.

Between Two Knees, through October 27, 2019, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Thomas Theatre, 15 S Pioneer St., Ashland OR. Check the calendar at www.osfashland.org for specific dates and times. Ticket are $40-$135 and can be purchased at the same website.


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