Thursday, October 24, 2013

Meet The R&D: Mary Kathryn Nagle

Mary Kathryn Nagle, a playwright in this years R&D group, recounts the process of her most recent investigative theatre project, Sliver of a Full Moon. The play was performed on October 14th by the Native American women who included their stories as victims of violence. For more information on the show, please click HERE.

Sometimes I have a hard time calling myself a playwright.  When I write, I don’t invent stories or characters.  I don’t search deep down into my creative soul to discover a story- I go out into my community and I listen.  And through the act of listening, I inevitably discover stories that must be told.  Stories that the world needs to hear, and that the community needs to share.  For a long time, I felt that made me a fake playwright.  All I do is listen to others, record their words, and then I cut and paste them into a format I find to be compelling.  I’m not really making up anything on my own.  What kind of a playwright does that?

The most amazing part about writing these sorts of plays is that you never know where the story will take you.  You start with something you want to investigate, something you don’t understand.  And you ask questions.  And after you take account of all of the answers that come back to you, you realize the story you’re telling is a story you could never have imagined yourself.

Most recently, when I sat down to conduct interviews for Sliver of a Full Moon, I thought the piece I was writing would just be a series of monologues that I cut and pasted together from the transcripts of the interviews I conducted.  When I was asked to conduct these interviews, I had no idea where the story would eventually end up.

It was February 2013, and tribal leaders from several different American Indian Nations were in Washington, D.C., lobbying for the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”).  More specifically, they were asking the United States Congress to pass a bill that would recognize the inherent sovereignty of American Indian tribes to prosecute non-natives who come onto tribal lands and commit acts of domestic abuse against Native women.

In 1978, the United States Supreme Court declared that Indian tribes no longer have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on reservations.  Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant, Native women were hit the hardest.  Native women are more likely to become victims of violent crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence than any other race—and yet 88% of the perpetrators of these crimes against Native women are non-native.  So when the Supreme Court stripped tribal governments of their ability to prosecute non-natives, tribal governments lost their ability to protect Native women in their own homes.

    Press coverage for Mary Kathryn's play Sliver of a Full Moon 
It was February 2013 and I had come to DC not to lobby or help with the effort of VAWA, but rather, to socialize with some friends, and suddenly, in the middle of dinner, I was facing some important questions:

How can we share the stories of our Native women survivors?

Can you interview them?

Can you write a play?

My answer was YES.  I was honored to take on this task.  And  in the middle of dinner, our plan became clear.  We would interview a group of survivors, and their stories would be transformed into a series of monologues that would become a play- and then we would take the play directly to Congress.  We would perform the monologues of their stories in DC for the entire government to hear.   How could Congress deny tribal governments the right to protect Native women after hearing their stories?

But the thing about this form of art is that, as a “playwright,” you have no control.  You start out taking interviews with one thought in mind, and six weeks later you realize you’re involved in a project that is larger than life and taking you in a completely opposite direction. 

Two days before I was scheduled to take my first interview, I received a text message from my friend.  “VAWA passed!!!!”

What?!   No one thought that would happen! 

The whole purpose behind taking these interviews and writing this play was to help the effort in getting VAWA passed—because everyone agreed the House would vote against it!  Now that VAWA has passed with the tribal jurisdiction provision in it, what’s the point of writing this play? 

After much discussion, we decided to go forward with the interviews.  As I listened to their stories, their words, I realized this play was not what I thought it was.

The women I was interviewing weren’t just survivors.  They were warriors.  They didn’t just survive the violence that was inflicted upon them—they took their experiences, their stories of survival, and they started a grassroots movement to change the law at the national level.  All of them had been involved in change at their local level, and now the result was change at a national level.  A change that restored a portion of their tribes’ pre-1978 sovereignty to protect them in their own homes. 

Suddenly I realized that the play I was writing wasn’t about the violence that had happened to these women.  No—this play was about their success in changing the law so that what happened to them would never happen to their daughters.  Or their grandchildren.

This past Monday October 14, we held a reading of Sliver of a Full Moon.  The women warriors who I interviewed played themselves in the play—they read their stories for all to hear.   I am honored to have worked with some incredible women: Lisa Brunner (White Earth Ojibwe); Diane Millich (Southern Ute); and Billie Jo Rich (Eastern Band Cherokee).

Representative Tom Cole and the woman interviewed for the project.

And although there were monologues of survival in the play, the majority of the play covered the true story of Native women warriors, as well as tribal leaders, who used their stories and their life experiences to achieve one of the greatest victories American Indians have ever seen since 1492. 

Having recently joined the Civilians R&D Group, I have learned that this kind of theater is known as “investigative theater.”  I love that.  I love that we have a title for the kind of sacred story telling we Natives have been doing for hundreds of years.   I am very much looking forward to this year with my fellow collaborators in the R&D Group.   If my experience doing investigative theater with the R&D Group is anything like the investigate theater I’ve done in the past, I know it will change my life.
President Barack Obama,survivor and actress Diane Millich and Vice President Joe Biden                    
Thanks for sharing your process, Mary Kathryn. For other posts about our R&D Group artists, please click HERE

1 comment: