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Urban Rez: Playwright Larissa FastHorse on the Urban Indian Experience

 Urban Rez play
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Larissa FastHorse
Larissa FastHorse talks about forthcoming play "Urban Rez" at Skid Row's "Indian Alley." | Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell.

In partnership with Cornerstone Theater Company​: Cornerstone Theater Company makes new plays with and about communities.​

This article is the first in a series about Cornerstone Theater Company's​ upcoming Hunger Cycle play, "Urban Rez," a community­-engaged production created in collaboration with members of the Native American community in Los  Angeles. "Urban Rez," written by Larissa FastHorse, an award­-winning playwright and choreographer from the Sicangu Lakota Nation, reflects  a contemporary story of urban Indians in Los Angeles through performances that examine the hunger that persists when culture, language, land and identity are denied.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse has worked to develop "Urban Rez" in response to her community's specific challenges. Her desire is to provide an experience that blurs the lines between theater, culture, and education and to present the play at outdoor venues, connecting audiences with the lands of the Native people of the Los Angeles Basin. The artistic process began by interacting with indigenous peoples of Southern California and learning about their culture, issues, needs, and aspirations. The end result will be an immersive theater experience that unfolds as  part of an interactive cultural fair, held outdoors this spring at the Los Angeles State Historic Park and Kuruvungna Springs.

This series will explore the play’s development process from the perspective of community members and artists  involved in the project. In this interview, FastHorse discusses "Urban Rez" and what it means to "Hunger for Culture."

Urban Rez Cornerstone play
Photo: Paula Donnelly.

How does this play fit into a cycle of plays about Hunger and what was the catalyst for you to want to write this play now?

The Cornerstone ensemble approached me about writing a play for the Hunger Cycle, and at that point they had a topic that they were interested in having me write about. As the cycle went along, a couple of the other plays seemed to cover that topic and so they came back to me and said “think about what you are interested in -- what about the topic of hunger interests you -- and let us know.” As I was thinking and brainstorming; it was my husband who actually came up with the concept of “Hunger for Culture” and how it connected to the original people of the Los Angeles Basin. They are here -- have been here for thousands of years -- and yet have no claim to their ancestral lands, no claim to their own name even because the federal government has declared them extinct. There felt to me to be this huge hunger for so many things. At the same time, we are all living, and working, and doing this play on this land that actually belongs to someone else who has no ability to claim it -- which I found to be both tragic and a fascinating way of thinking about hunger.

I also think, “Hunger for Culture” is something that we can all identify with. We all are searching for who we are and the way we define that is continuously changing throughout our lives. We have this ongoing hunger and I wanted to use the story of the original people of the L.A. Basin and their very clear obvious hunger as a sort of mirror for us to be able to examine some of our smaller hungers about who we are and where we come from.

Has that concept of “Hunger for Culture” resonated with the people you’ve met and interviewed for this project?

Yes. It has turned into something very universal. There is this massive industry right now serving people who are interested in learning about their DNA and their ancestry. People want to know who they are and where they come from. Especially in a city like L.A. where we are this incredible melting pot of cultures and yet people feel isolated and alone. We are looking for ways to connect to each other and to something bigger than ourselves. The people of the L.A. Basin -- the various tribes that have called this area home -- they have this direct link to that and they have held on to  it. It’s expressed not just through their DNA but through a shared culture that has survived despite three different countries trying to wipe them out. That survival and that strength speaks to everybody in different ways.

More specifically, it’s been exciting to hear the different reactions and feedback from people that have heard the play or have been part of the process of creating the play, particularly people of the Los Angeles Basin. It’s been very moving to be allowed to take their voices and add them to this play and try to express this incredible, and truly inconceivable, desire to exist. I honestly can’t conceive of that being an issue, just trying to exist. Trying to be acknowledged for who you are. They fight this every single day, this invisibility, and it’s been such an honor to bring that story forward and hopefully educate the rest of us -- including you and I both -- about that fight that’s going on for people and how deep that hunger is.

How has the Cornerstone process of playwriting been different from how you might otherwise approach your writing?

It’s the same and different at the same time. Because I come from a tribal background, that historically did not have a written language, I rely very heavily on oral history. When I do research as a playwright I depend on talking with people and I conduct a lot of interviews. Going through the Cornerstone Institute Intensive was incredibly rewarding as a playwright -- and as a human. For me, it was a formalization and deepening of a process that I was inherently doing and gave a whole other dimension to my work. This process really changes the way you do theater. I will say it kind of screws up making regular theater. It ruins just sitting at home and writing.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse and director Michael John Garces
"Urban Rez" director Michael John Garces and playwright Larissa FastHorse talk about forthcoming play "Urban Rez" at Skid Row's "Indian Alley." | Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell.

What has been the most challenging part of working this way?

It can be an incredibly slow and sometimes frustrating process. It takes time to get people to trust and share -- much longer than people realize and so much longer than my usual process. This is a community  that  is  incredibly  diverse  geographically, and politically, and there has been various levels of interest in the project so it has taken time to meet people and hear their stories but also then to go through all of that information. Once you have all the raw material you have to then comb through the stories and details that have been shared with you and pull those threads together that you can then weave a new piece of cloth from.

It’s also a challenge to define the community -- the community has so many more facets than we realized when we  started so part of our process has been finding out who the community is and adjusting how we are thinking and  talking about the project. Part of why I wrote this piece as a farce(ish) play is that it has allowed us to deal with really specific issues that the different people in this area are facing without having to define who people are or are not. Instead it focuses on the issues and the real personal impact that these issues are having on human beings -- who have a multiplicity of identities, who are from several different tribes, and from different parts of this region.

Can you talk a little about the structure of the piece and your choice to make the piece an immersive theatrical experience?

To me the piece is a reflection of the community. It’s common in many tribal nations for many generations of a family to  live together and so the piece had to reflect that multi­-generational experience. It had to be something that the different generations could participate in. You could have grandmother and her kids and the grandkids -- you could have four generations coming together -- (that) was really important to me. It also needed to be something that was part of the earth; outside and connected to this land that we are all standing on. Land that doesn’t belong to us. The theme of land and environmental stewardship was so present for many of the people in the community that we talked to that I felt the play had to be on the ground.

So many of us -- myself included -- have so little knowledge of the original people of this area, of the issues they are facing today but also of their past. The idea of creating this cultural fair -- that is also a play and has real and fictional aspects all blended together -- made the most sense to me. This immersive piece gives us a way to humanize Native people and Native stories in a way that is often hard to do when based in history as opposed to present day. In this piece you have to stand face to face and look at each other and interact with each other, interact with these actors and with real Native people. To me that brings all of these issues to scale. I hope that people will walk away from this immersive experience and take that scale into their real lives. I hope they will realize how many Native people they are interacting with every day, how many times they are standing on Native land, and how many times indigenous practice is, or could be, within their own lives.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse
Larissa FastHorse. | Photo: Conor Horgan.

Who do you want to see the play and what should audiences know about the play?

Well, of course I want Native people to see it -- to come and see themselves. But it’s really a play for everyone. For all of us to learn about so many things, historically, culturally, about the space we are standing in, about each other, and about what it means to be who you are and how you express that, especially when the government is standing in the way telling "you aren’t allowed to be who you are."

Beyond that, I think it will appeal to a wide range of people. I think traditional theater audiences that are interested in different forms and new kinds of theater experiences will enjoy the immersive nature. There are so many ways to participate and hopefully come away with a lot of cool experiences. But what I love is that it’s also for families; ­there is stuff for children to do and hands on experiences for all ages. That has always been very important to my work, in general, having things that families can enjoy together.

The play itself is satirical, a little biting, and fun at the same time. It’s not the kind of thing where people will force you to do things you’re uncomfortable with. I hate that. But it allows for an incredible level of participation if that’s what you want. You are in control of the experience and you could come several times, do it different ways, and always have a unique experience.

The idea for the play is that you get to show up and you get to belong for as long as you choose to hang out at the "Urban Rez." That’s really the experience. We all get to show up and belong somewhere and create our own community for a moment. That’s what I am hoping this experience does; it invites you to feel invested in, and a part of, and in control of something, and to have it change you.

"Urban Rez," Cornerstone Theater Company’s collaboration with the Native American community in Los Angeles, will perform April 7 - ­ May 1.

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