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Urban Rez: Voices of Native American Actors

"Urban Rez" actor portraits
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Maxine Cambridge Napoleon, "Urban Rez" actor
Maxine Cambridge Napoleon, "Urban Rez" actor. | Photo: Viki Eagle.

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

This article is part of an exclusive series about Cornerstone Theater Company​’s 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 explores the play’s development process from the perspective of community members and artists involved in the project. In this interview, cast members share their stories and experiences as community actors in “Urban Rez.”

Share your name, where you were born and how long you’ve lived in L.A.

Maxine Cambridge Napoleon: I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, raised in the Four Corners area -- Shiprock Reservation and I’ve been in L.A. since 2009.

Danielle Aguilar: I was born in Arcadia, California in the San Gabriel Valley and I’ve lived here all my life. 

Jenny Marlowe: I’m from Cape Cod, Massachusetts and I’ve been in L.A. for four years.

Clementine Bordeaux: I was born in South Dakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I am Sicangu Oglala Lakota and I’ve lived in Los Angeles since 2011.

Kenneth Ramos: I was born in San Diego County at Grossmont Hospital, grew up on the Barona Indian Reservation just east of that and I’ve lived in Los Angeles since 2008 -- so eight years. 

Cecelia Phoenix: I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in Center City -- we came out to L.A. with my uncle when I was seven years old, so I’ve been living in L.A. off and on for a long time. We moved around Southern California for a while, but I always thought of L.A. as my home. 

Kenneth Ramos, "Urban Rez" actor
Kenneth Ramos, "Urban Rez" actor.  | Photo: Viki Eagle​.

What communities are you a part of?

Kenny: The first community for me is always the Native community, whether that’s my community now in Los Angeles, which is other Native people, or back at home when I think about the Native community, which is my own tribal community. That’s always forefront. There is the LGBT community that I am on the fringe of -- with other Two-Sprits -- or in fact the Two-Spirit community. And then at UCLA we have our own little community of both Native people and other people at UCLA.

Danielle: I think of the Catholic School community -- people who have gone to Catholic school -- and a small section of the local Native community the, Ti’at Society. I’m involved in the art community -- though I’d like to be more -- and I’m part of the Mexican American community. 

Clementine: I’m really fortunate to have so many wonderful Native colleagues at UCLA. I’ve spent the five years that I’ve been here trying to figure out where our community is in L.A. -- whether that’s doing programming at the Autry or doing work with American Indian Community Council, or with the Red Circle Project, or with the Tataviam in the Valley -- trying to figure out where Native people are, and trying to be there to support them. 

Jenny Marlowe, "Urban Rez" actor
Jenny Marlowe, "Urban Rez" actor.  | Photo: Viki Eagle​.

What have you learned about yourself or your community through this project?

Jenny: So much… I don’t think I’m done learning yet. I grew up without any connection to my tribe. I didn’t even meet any other Native people until I came to Los Angeles, which was the point at which I started learning what it meant to be Native. When I came to L.A. and hooked up with Native Voices, I started meeting other Native people who came from so many different backgrounds. I began to learn about the Native diaspora and the diversity within the Native community. I found a voice of my own to become a community activist, to be a community leader -- and that has become a functional and central part of my life. But because that was not part of my childhood, because I didn’t grow up with a connection to cultural traditions or to the ancestors, I always feel to some extent like an outsider -- like I have a lot of learning left to do. This project has been a concentrated dose of that. Exposure to people’s experiences and stories and backgrounds -- I feel very sensitized to things that I wasn’t even aware of before starting this process.

Danielle: I'm also part of the Mexican American community, and I guess I’ve learned how similar we are. Getting to know Native Americans who are not from L.A. and realizing just how similar we are, not just in our foods and traditions but in our ways and values, little nuances in how we interact with older people and children, and I’m noticing that being Mexican is so closely connected to being indigenous and that I want to embrace that more and be that and embody the indigenous person that I am with confidence, because we share so many of the same ways. 

Cecelia: Two things: that I don’t need anything or anyone to tell me who I am and if you have a question, ask it, that it’s okay not to know. I’ve learned so much about the Tongva, about Toypurina, about the missions. I was baptized a Catholic -- I know what the missions did to people here. They went about teaching the word in the wrong way. You can’t force faith on anyone. We have to tell the truth about our history and look at the chronology -- there is a cause and effect. 

Danielle Aguilar, "Urban Rez" actor
Danielle Aguilar, "Urban Rez" actor.  | Photo: Viki Eagle​.

What has been the most challenging part of this process? 

Danielle: Just showing up was a risk for me, because I like to be alone, I like to be in my comfort zone -- and it’s a risk to get out of that comfort zone but I know that many good things come from cracking that shell. Also proclaiming my thoughts and the way I relate to the earth and relate to my environment, it’s a very vulnerable thing and so to verbalize that especially coming from a family who has been here for a couple generations and is very assimilated and witnessing that is taking a risk and being raw -- being confident.

Jenny: What’s been really unique about this process… by virtue of all of us being in the room together, we have implicitly created a community. We’ve created a comfort zone where previously there was none; and so things that would be enormous risks in any other context seem incredibly safe and incredibly productive here. There is a trust that we share… We come into the room knowing that we share some kind of history, even though we all come from different backgrounds, different geographical locations, different tribes. We all belong to the same community, and we all came here for a least some of the same reasons.

Cecelia Phoenix, "Urban Rez" actor
Cecelia Phoenix, "Urban Rez" actor.  | Photo: Viki Eagle​.

In what ways do you resonate with the stories of "Urban Rez"?

Maxine: Navajo is the biggest native tribe in the U.S. -- I was raised Catholic, Mormon and in the Native American church and didn’t really know where to identify myself. Around nine or 10 my mom sent us to a boarding school-kindergarten, what they called the Mormon placement program. At that time you didn’t talk, you didn't speak your language or you got quite a reprimand, so I was pretty much all closed up -- in my shell. On the other hand, my dad practiced in the Native American church. He didn’t enforce it on us, but he tried to take us with him when he performed the services. My mom, she’d rather we get out and get some education. So I was between worlds. I wasn’t accepted in the Anglo world and I wasn’t accepted in the Native world -- every time I’d come back they’d say “you don't talk like us, you don’t act like us” -- I didn’t really identify myself as Navajo, but a twinkie I guess you might say -- that’s what I was called.

Kenny: I feel that on all kinds of levels. Obviously I relate to Max, to the things he is struggling with in terms of recognition, what that means and how that impacts his identity and self-worth. It’s interesting to play a character that you can relate to from real life Native experience. It’s also interesting to see the other characters that have stories that are so relevant for my family. One that resonates with me is Robie and Antoine. As a product of a bi-racial relationship, it hits a cord with me because those are my parents; those scenes about blood quantum really resonate with me. When I hear my actual story -- my words -- it’s an interesting experience. It’s been paraphrased or it’s been changed a little here and there, but to think that there are people that know that story, like my sister, when she’s here is she going to hear that or how is she going to feel about that, is it going to bring something up for her? I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s so powerful to have stories that resonate with people whose stories don’t get told all the time. 

Jenny: There’s one moment in particular where a character talks about how he used to hate how everybody around was related to him or knew him -- but now that he’s away from his tribe, away from his community, he realizes that when he looks around at the faces on the bus, no one knows him; and if he were to disappear, no one would miss him. I come from a very small town where I refused to go back for a really long time -- I felt like I had to go make my way in the world. And now, I feel so lucky when I get to go home, because every person there knows me. I just remember that story resonating so powerfully with me when I first heard it, and feeling like I could have written it or said it myself. There are a lot of little moments like that.

Clementine: The relationship -- between Robie and Antoine -- the non-Native with the Native. As a Native woman so many of the policies that were put in place for our communities -- especially Native women -- [order that] they loose their status or their children can’t be enrolled, if they are with a non-Native man. There’s this pressure that was never put on us until colonization and we’re still reeling from it. Those are things that I didn’t think I had to think about until I was actually in a relationship with a non-Native person. Living away from the reservation and living in an urban context I think about what it will mean for my children. I don’t have children yet, but this is something I think about. How am I going to help them be conscious Lakota people in an urban setting? I was fortunate enough to be raised in my homelands with my people, but if I’m still in Los Angeles or wherever how am I going to be able to maintain our identities, our culture and our heritage? There are a lot of those stories and questions that are reflected in this piece in a multitude of ways.

Cecelia: I was mostly raised in the city -- the city and the rez so I know a bit of both. My daughter has Native blood but she can’t be enrolled, we tried to enroll her because she wants to be recognized, but the people there said, “No, you can’t skip a generation.” I was outraged. This is part of why I connect so much with this play -- my daughter wants so much to be recognized and when I say my line “I don’t need anything to tell me who I am,” I connect so deeply and I know she would too. This is why this play means a lot to me. 

Clementine Bordeaux , "Urban Rez" actor
Clementine Bordeaux , "Urban Rez" actor.  | Photo: Viki Eagle​.

"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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