When, at 18, Soledad “Sunny” Sixkiller (Jolie Cloutier) pursues a college scholarship for an Indian Teacher Education program, she’s asked to write about her background. Other than being aware her professor father moved the family from Oklahoma to California, she knows nothing about their ancestry except that she’s Chumash/Tongva. Her father (Brett Hecksher) refuses to discuss it.
Ria Nez, Jolie Cloutier, Brett Hecksher
Thomas Sixkiller feels strongly that Sunny should attend the school at which he teaches not only for financial consideration, but because it’s “safe.” What can he mean? In order to get into either college, the girl must improve math skills she considers useless. To this end, dad hires his student Alex Rivera (Bradley Lewis) as a tutor. Sunny deflects and pouts, frankly acting too young for her age.
Mom Dora (Ria Nez) has told Sunny she can get through to her father with song, at this point cryptic advice. The women sing and dance to Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” which makes no sense. Sunny is told to retrieve a box of cassettes from a closet. These turn out to be recordings of traditional Native American music and vocals. She’s playing one as Alex enters. “Oh, man, they don’t sing like that anymore,” he says grinning. The tutor turns out to be a prize-winning Chumash/Tongva grass dancer who regularly attends pow-wows. (A celebratory gathering with dances held by many first Nation communities.)
Also in the box is a photo of Dora and Thomas ostensibly wearing Native American costume. The tape to which the young people have been listening is, in fact, Sunny’s parents – once famous performers. She’s astonished. “Why did my dad stop?” We watch a reenactment of history. Things start to make sense. Sunny wants to learn to sing and dance. Alex agrees so long as math comes first. He also agrees to take her to her first pow-wow where, now in brightly colored, beribboned costume, Alex executes a grass dance.
Bradley Lewis, Jolie Cloutier
Mandate dictates only men can execute the dance. Again, the girl gets whiny. “Why did you bring me here? The rules are senseless and stupid!” she declares, frustrated. The couple perform a potato dance which turns out to resemble one of “our” children’s party games, and a two step she learned in her living room. Suddenly Sunny sees Thomas who’s been asked to speak on cases of Native American domestic violence and rape. Shocked, she hides and listens. Another clue. When her father finds out she was present, he’s furious and threatens to fire Alex.
The rest of the play, which besides dance includes several evocative songs written by the playwright, resolves the mystery of Thomas’s feelings and eliminates his reticence to embrace and share family culture with his daughter. We also learn a secret about Dora. The last scene (particularly well written) is heartwarming.
Bradley Lewis and Brett Hecksher
Text and production are mixed bags. Playwright Dr. Carolyn Dunn offers illuminating insight into Native American culture as well as continuing issues affecting tribes. Writing, however, could be more lively. The first act is nowhere near as well penned as the second, making us restless. As indicated, Sunny acts too young in opposition to the maturity of wanting to learn about her roots and participate in native customs. She’s less sympathetic because of the characteristic. Thomas’s speech is effectively jarring. Alex is beautifully defined.
In Act I, direction has Sunny repeatedly getting up and down from the couch with neither reason nor direction. She always looks lost. John Scott Richardson often moves characters without apparent motivation. A confrontation scene between Thomas and Alex and Sunny at the podium are both distinctively realized. Note to prop master: from the beginning, paper used for forms and notes is blatantly blank.
Set by David Bunn Martine (Chircahua Apache/Shinnecock/Montauk) is serviceable. Choreography by Matt C. Cross (Kiowa) adds a great deal to veracity, though Lewis is somewhat less than graceful, as do native costumes by Oriana Sophia.
Jolie Cloutier – Sunny (Onondaga) surreptitiously glances at the audience, a focus issue. Act II is a great improvement. Joy during dance and song is infectious.
Because Brett Hecksher – Thomas (Cherokee) is directed to be tightly wound from his entrance, before any issue is raised, what troubles him is diminished in its distinction. The actor’s presence is grounded and sincere.
As Alex, Bradley Lewis (Acoma Pueblo) is credible, likeable, and sympathetic throughout.
The weak link here is Ria Nez’s Dora (Nahuatl). Sunny’s mom seems vague in everything she does. Though there’s theoretically a reason to allow her less vibrancy, it doesn’t work. Fault here is likely directorial.
The production arrives under the aegis of AMERINDA (American Indian Artists, Inc.) The heritage of all cast and creatives is Native American. Though the piece has issues, it’s intriguing and refreshing to see a light shone on First Nations during contemporary times.
Photos by Max Ruby
Opening: Bradley Lewis and Jolie Cloutier
Soledad by Carolyn Dunn – whose identity includes Cherokee, Muskogee Creek, Seminole and Choctaw Freedman decent
Directed by John Scott-Richardson – Tutelo Saponi, Nansemond, Tuscarona lineage
Theater For The New City
155 First Avenue
Through January 22, 2023