Acting Like Adults

The Adventures of Leigh Hooks in Children's Theatre

Out of Africa

Go to where the dreams are thickest, sleep, let them in.

 

 

Out of Africa in Wakpala
By: Leighland A. Hooks

Something struck me as I looked into the eyes of a girl named Dreamer. She couldn’t talk but she could smile. Wide and deep all the way back to her fillings; which were silver but her eyes were an earthy brown with green specks. The playground is hot. The high plains day, in late summer death throws, grinds the turf to a nice gooey consistency. The kids I’ve been working with suddenly set free move like wild horses. It’s in their blood at Standing Rock.

Earlier in the week they had asked if “I was Lakota” like them. “He’s brown like us!” they giggled. Before I could answer: “No, I’m half-black.” And add the only native word I know (as if to impress them like a high-brow New England merchant who reads too many Louis L’amour books) “Tatanka”. I imagined them looking at me cross-eyed, missing toothed mouths agape, then uproarious laughter: “Buffalo?” So much for watching Dances With Wolves…Luckily, my touring partner stopped me from speaking and moved on with auditions.

Regardless of my obvious deficiency knowledge of the local tongue, the kids talk to me in Lakota. The only translations I received were from passer Byers. “Ze” means no. Strength and age grant authority and middle fingers probably mean “hello”. I take no offense to the, in Minnesota terms, crass treatment or aggression. I am an outsider to them. Worse than a stranger, a white-man educated theatre teacher with nothing they want to know.

What can I bring them? What can I give them that fills their needs? Their wants? As one of my teachers, Ronlin Foreman, said: “For us! For us! The play is for the delight of the audience and the pure joy of the player!” In servitude is the lesson. For them, always.

But what use can a show about imagination and pirates be to these kids? Kids who don’t want pirates and talking dogs. During a rehearsal early in the week, a group of boys were talking:

“What’s this show about? Is it Native?”
“No, it’s a white-man show.”
“Oh.”
They catch me ease dropping.
“Hear the one about the orange?”
“Fruit punch.” Says a boy, Michael
Out classed by eight year olds

I came to realize that day; I have encountered the true west. Not the one in the pages of Sam Sheppard’s domestic violence infused play, but the heartbeat of the Middle-American Plains. And this, the children and descendants, the blood forced to reservations to pool and stagnate. Although, I grew up in central Minnesota amongst farmers and mechanics with rusted pick-ups and horses, my west is fake. It is the west of progression and expensive educations, debt and material. Nothing to do with customs and ancestral traditions.

Back at the hotel, I say goodnight to my touring partner and friend Jacinta (I call her Jac for short):

“’Night Jac. Sleep well dress rehearsal will be tough tomorrow.”
“Yeah. I don’t know how we’ll get them to listen. It’ll be what it will. ‘Night.”

We’re staying at The Grand River Casino Hotel just outside Wakpala. It smells of stale smoke and empty pockets. I feel conflicted staying at a casino. Happy to have a room but uncomfortable in a house of chance. I sleep disheartened.

In the mornings, I liked to watch the wind sweep the prairie grass over my oatmeal and tea. It is beautiful to me. I imagine mustangs running freely across the range, through the wind like blunt knives forcing a cut. Running. Always moving. Away from a home they never had. I never gaze too long. The plains turn into the African Serengeti and I see myself speaking African or Bush, Swahili with the Masai warriors. Carefully hunting gazelle. I look away; I have always looked away, back into my furnished room with my guitar and smart phone. All these things I’ve carried with me: clothes, hats, broken hearts, beer bottoms. For a second I compare myself with Christ. I laugh at my complex, absolve myself and get on with my day.

I made the mistake of wearing my western pearl snap shirt and bandana one day.

“I like your cowboy costume” laugh the kids.
My face begins to match the peach tones of my shirt. Then, in reference to my bandana:

“Are you a crip?”
“What Shaylin?”
“Your blood rag.”

Little did I know that several students had been expelled or suspended for gang related activities the previous week. I had always thought that gangs were for cities like New York or Los Angeles, not small town South Dakota. I considered this as I turn a corner in the school building. My attention turns outward as the commons engulfs me. The after school drum circle is rehearsing. One drum and six players. The singular heartbeat of a people. All at once I am consumed with the memories of growing up bi-racial in rural Minnesota. The passive glances, the marginal tolerance and disgust (which I came to hold against myself). I want to cry. Slump against a wall and sing of my people, the world as my forefathers have told. Of the Ivory Coast and ships. A world I have no connection to anymore…the circle seems grotesque in the shiny new federal school. I turn into the theatre and think about something else:

Dreamer is reaching for my shoulders. So I stoop down to ask what she wants. She takes my arm with, surprising strength, and pulls me to the monkey bars.

“She wants to go across but have to help her up,” says her sister Harmony.

The drive to Wakpala is only seven miles. I use the time to think about my day: What needs to happen? What do I want to happen? And the day’s foreseen challenges. Dress rehearsal promises to be…creative at best. These kids do not agree with silence. Backstage is just another room to be filled. However, this one has canvas walls and nobody wants to hear about who kicked whom.

Out the window are the dissolute plains of cowboys and cattle. The range spans for miles in its way. Nothing to claim the wind, nothing to chain men’s hearts but barb wire and abandoned ranch homes. The early sun sets fire to the Missouri as molten gold drifts to the grasses. The wind blows north in little concussive bursts signaling the tides to pass into winter. Into isolation, frozen as ever ready for the spring to come.

I close my eyes. Perhaps my answer is in there amongst the dark and motion of the van. Hidden here in spaces and unfurnished rooms I’ve given myself. I drift. What can I find?

Dreamer falling into my hands and wrapping her arms around my neck. She laughs and squeals

“You might be able to do this on your own one day” I tell her. She only gallops off to start again. Expecting me to help her.

Stop.

“You ready?” asks Jac
“Yeah. Lets go.”

In servitude is the lesson. For me. Always.

Oct. 5th, 2011

P.s. As I later came to find, “Ze” is a derogatory term for no. Wakpala was our second residency during the fall tour and a tough one.

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5 thoughts on “Out of Africa

  1. Susan Q on said:

    There is one thing travelling has taught me: dropping into a new culture is a smack upside the head. Your eyes are opened to the deeper part of you that you’ve not recognized before. Your personal judgments and biases sneak out and shake your notion of who you think you are. You are made aware of the fact that you carry a whole load of assumptions that you never, ever thought to question because another way never even occurred to you. Sudden flashes of insight can leave you stupefied, confused, sad, amazed. Kinda like standing at a bus stop and realizing that you’re still in your bathrobe…whether it’s terrifying, embarassing, or hysterically funny is up to you.

    It is hard to push against ignorance and stupidity, harder still to learn how to handle it, and even harder those times when you realize that the ignorance and stupidity is yours. It’s a humbling lesson. And I’m still learning.

    If you can remain open and let them teach you, travel and exposure to new cultures are growth – not always pretty and not always what you thought you wanted, but necessary to appreciate the beauty and richness of difference.

    There is only here and there is only now. Listen to the lessons. And grow.

  2. Sue,

    So many insights happened at Wakpala. Life in Dakota is separated into four categories: East River, West River, Reservation and Off-Reservation. Going onto a reservation I didn’t really know what to expect. Before that, I had just read about the Lakota people and where they live in Dakota. The experience first hand was eye opening. The kids don’t trust anyone, are rowdy and can be hostile and some of the adults I met were the same way. The wounds of the past are still fresh in these places. Vice versa, I met and talked to some really great people who do great things in their community. It was just so heart breaking to try and teach when they wanted nothing to do with us. I wish we could have stayed longer and done more with these kids. I think they would really benefit from what we had to offer them. I want to find a way to do a theatre project on the reservations for and about the reservations. Something that is not from the outside but deeply interwoven into their own lives and environment.

    Learning lessons one day at a time.

    • Yeah, one has to break down a stone wall one chip at a time. The Lakota have a lot to be angry about, as do the many other tribes who lost everything – including their culture. Have you had a chance to attend one of their cultural events; dance, storytelling, etc? Maybe more exposure to their traditions can help you see a bit through their eyes, although no one but the Lakota will ever be Lakota. They have a lot of experiences that are uniquely theirs, perhaps an experience could be woven into a theater piece? Have you approached the elders for advice? My best wishes for success – you’ve got the compassion, now just persevere.

  3. Sue,

    I have not had a chance to attend any events so far nor have I had a chance to write a proposal. It’s not just the Lakota. First Nation Peoples all over the world have similar issues with Western Society. I just need to find a way that we can work together. Thank you for the encouragement.

  4. Pingback: Leigh and Lithuania: Romance of the American « Acting Like Adults

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