The Autry National Center in Griffith Park opens its 10th season of its Native Voices theater series with “Tales of an Urban Indian.” It’s a one-man show about Simon Douglas, a young man who grows up on a reservation, moves to the big city, ends up on skid row, then pulls himself out.
Writer and performer Darrel Dennis says that it’s a story about redemption based on a familiar theme.
Darrel Dennis grew up on a very remote reservation in the province of British Columbia. He moved as an adult to Toronto.
“I was going through a lot of changes in my life, trying to figure out who I was as a native person in modern society,” said Dennis.
Dennis called his character Simon Douglas, and incorporated dozens of people from his own life into the script.
”I’ve performed this all over North America and I found native people, non-native people, lower income people, rich people have all come up to me and said, ‘Hey, that happened to me, too, when I was younger. That’s my story as well, too.’”
Listening to Darrell Dennis talk about the work, it becomes apparent that the story’s central character travels a path that parallels Native American history.
“The journey that my character goes through, I guess you could say, is sort of the past of Native Americans, and the place he gets to in finding his identity and finding strength and power out of that is the point where we’re at now as native people across this continent, looking at new ways of solving our problems, going into the mainstream more, working," said Dennis. "So many of our people now are scholars and lawyers and politicians, and we’re making changes for our people within the system that we used to fight against, or were oppressed by. So we’re actually using the system now to make positive changes for native people, and that is sort of a parallel to what my character arrives at.”
More than anything, Dennis said he wanted to explore the ways victimization affects native people’s perception of themselves.
“It’s really a play about making choices and realizing that you are responsible in so many ways for your situation in life," said Dennis. "And I think, if you start with that sort of thesis, then eventually it’s either going to be 'I choose to die or fail, or I choose to live my life,' you know? It was inevitable that the ending was going to have a sense of hope to it."
During his 90-minute performance, Dennis portrays more than 40 characters. I asked Dennis to sample one of them.
“So this is the grandmother talking to my mother just before... OK. Damn flies. Them kids, they never shut the door. Tina, sit down already. Move closer! Respect your elders. Ay, you Tina, getting pregnant! Don’t be getting into any more trouble now. You got enough to worry about making my new grandchild be born!”
The woman he chose recently passed away in her 80s; he said she was feisty ‘til the end.
“Her name was actually Laura, but we call her Kye7e [sic] Laura. She had gone through the residential school – what you guys down here call the boarding school system – seen it all, you know, was an alcoholic, sobered up, raised all these kids, and just became this, almost the queen of the reservation there (laughs), just very well respected."
“Tales of an Urban Indian” opens the Native Voices 10th season this Sunday at the Autry Museum in L.A.’s Griffith Park. Performance dates and times are available online at TheAutry-dot-org.
"Tales of an Urban Indian" is produced by Native Voices at the Autry in association with New York's The Public Theater (which premiered the play last spring).