By Maddie Orton
Mascot or cultural misappropriation? That’s the question behind Luna Stage‘s new play “Indian Head” — and the continued debate around Native American slurs and stereotypes used by local and national sports teams. At a rehearsal earlier this week, playwright Nikkole Salter talked about translating these headlines into theater.
“It seems sort of insurmountable to me to take a topic — an enormous topic — and boil it down into a show and characters and a narrative. How do you do that?” I asked.
“So when you take an issue like cultural appropriation, ‘What are we really talking about?’ becomes my initial question,” explained Salter. “Are we just talking about the adoption or the misappropriation of culture by people who don’t know anything about it? Yes. But what is that ultimately about? That’s about respect.”
Salter dove into research, consulting New Jersey’s Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe leaders and keeping an eye on authenticity. She ultimately centered the script around a fictional Native American teenage girl who vandalizes school property in protest of the mascot.
“One of the particular joys of this play, is to really dramatize why this conflict is a conflict,” said Salter. “When we all exist in the bubbles of our lives, we usually are talking to people who see the world basically the way we do. So we rarely end up in debate.”
One person who’s well versed in all sides of this argument? Carla-Rae. The Seneca-Mohawk actress has had this conversation many times. She traveled all the way from Virginia to do the show.
“It affects all of us in ways that people don’t fully understand,” said Carla-Rae. “You know, people are saying, ‘Why are you just now saying…?’ Well, we’ve been saying this is not acceptable since the beginning. Nobody’s been listening.”
So Carla-Rae feels she was meant to be a a part of this project.
“I’ve become very — personally and in the character — very vulnerable,” she said. “It’s like you’re standing there and all the layers are ripped away and it’s like, OK, this is my story.”
As audience members can see from the Luna Stage’s new Context Room, it’s a lot of people’s story. News articles on similar controversies and background information on the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are on display. Of course, not everyone will agree about what should become of these team mascots, but that’s fine. It’s about sparking a conversation.
“Indian Head” runs through March 5 at Luna Stage.