Sometimes genre cannot hold an artist, and their gift for telling a story spontaneously overrides the confines of traditional form. William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., is just such an artist, and on Friday night an excited audience jammed Space on White in New York City to celebrate his work.
Many of us in New York spend any evenings of our lives in readings of work in progress, whether it is poetry, fiction, music, or theater, and once in a while you walk into something exciting just because it is so unexpected. I attended an event called W’anishi (Thank You in Lenape), produced by The Eagle Project, a very new theater company dedicated to exploring the American identity through performing arts and their own Native American heritage, and this particular reading and celebration was being held in support of their future production of the play Wood Bones by Mr. Yellow Robe.
Mr. Yellow Robe, an enrolled member of the Assiniboine tribe of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, is an energetic and exciting artist, and introduced his work by reading two poems and a “Facebook rant,” before yielding the stage to a performance of a scene by from his new play Wood Bones. What made the half hour, and perhaps the entire evening, interstitial in my mind, was the lack of boundaries between the forms as presented by the playwright/performer, a master story teller. He began with two poems, written for his late wife as she was dying from cancer; his told their story and the poems were incredibly moving, both on their own, but even more so because of the context he had given He moved directly to the poems to a “Facebook rant” (he described Facebook as the cheapest and easiest form of publishing) about the difficulty of creating and producing theater work in America. This provided a segue to the scene from Wood Bones.
We only saw a few short scenes from the play, but they were powerful, moving, and mysterious, exploring issues of the loss of both personhood and culture. The actors, in their short moments on stage, were extraordinary; Veracity Butcher as 121, conveyed the pain of being invisibly chained and deprived of her memory with wonder physical movement that drew you into her agony; Albert Ybarra portrayed Leroy, who seemed to be a kind of caretaker/jailor/potential liberator. Director Bob Jaffe, who has been working for a decade will the playwright on a variety of projects, clearly has an understanding of the work, and helped convey, in a few short moments the depth of its message.
Earlier in the evening, we were tantalized by several brief scenes from other productions this very young theater company has been working on. Waaxe’s Law by Mary Kathryn Nagle is a play about an early law suit in Oklahoma that fought to improve the legal position of Native Americans. Tyree Giroux as Chief Standing Bear and John Mazurek as General Crook made unlikely but effective comrades as protestor and defendant. The scene from In the Boneyard by Ian McDonald showed two brothers fighting over whether to exhume their mother; Ryan Victor Pierce, founder of the company, directed both scenes with a sure hand, and offered a very amusing performance as
“Doom,” one of the brothers, in the second, playing opposite Tony Torn as the outrageously obstreperous “Gloom.” as the second. “Broken Heart Land” by Vicki Lynn Mooney managed to be both entertaining and deeply upsetting, as it portrayed the terrifying wedding night of an innocent and unprepared bride in the 19th century. There was a brief performance by Mariah Gladstone, who engaged the audience in a touching call and response song.
Of course, you can’t really review theater or concert readings, which only offer a glimpse of art which will be fully realized later, but I was so knocked out by the story telling and beautifully framed communication which leapt over traditional boundaries and yet was rooted so deeply in tradition that I wanted to share. Congratulations to The Eagle Project on their remarkably productive first year, and I sure everyone who was there can hardly wait to see what they will produce in their second.
All images and photos supplied courtesy of The Eagle Project. You can also find them on Facebook – The Eagle Project.