12th season of Native Voices at the Autry opens

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Production photo by Tony Dontscheff

Frybread Queen’s Elizabeth Frances and Jane Lind

The Autry National Center in Los Angeles has just opened its twelfth season of Native Voices – plays written and performed by Native Americans throughout the United States. The company was founded by Jean Bruce Scott and Randy Reinholz, who also heads the Theater, Television and Film program at San Diego State.

"My name Reinholz is German," says Randy Reinholz. "There’s some Irish in the family, but my grandmother who was Chocktaw told the stories about what it was like growing up and those are the stories I remembered. I started to think that’s my family, that’s my story."

Reinholz got involved with Shakespeare in college; he admits that's where he became a theater nerd. He wondered whether there might be a way to combine his heritage with his Master’s in Fine Arts from Cornell.

He met a few Native playwrights in the early 1990s and that’s how he and his wife, Jean, got Native Voices on its feet. "There weren’t a lot of Native writers known to American theater – you could list them on one hand. Here we are 20 years later and we’ve got a couple hundred stories published and we’ve got a lot of writers working in a lot of major theaters," including the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Public Theater in New York City.

This season at the Autry opens with Carolyn Dunn’s play, “Frybread Queen.” Dunn’s part Cherokee and part Seminole.

She began the work four years ago through the Native Voices play development program. It features four women because Dunn found few quality roles for Native American women.

She says the story is a continuation of a novel she’s just written. "And the novel ends with the death of one of these family members. So I wondered what would happen after this took place, so I thought what about the funeral? This would be the next logical place to go because there would still be a lot of tension in the family."

"It’s got three generations of Native women in it, too," says Reinholz, "so you see a lot of perspective. It has a wonderful fight in the play that’s certainly not resolved, but you hear both sides talked about. Urban, rural, traditional, contemporary, Internet knowledge versus traditional knowledge, and they’re fighting for the soul of this young girl, the future of the people."

Reinholz remembers the scripts he and his wife would receive in the early ‘90s – often they had to do with abuse on reservations and stolen Native lands and resources. Jean Bruce Scott says that in the years since, more ‘common’ themes have emerged.

"And I think that’s been the exciting thing for Randy and I, developing Native work," says Scott, "is that we have really fearless writers who tackle the difficult subjects and who also say, now wait a minute, we’re also contemporary people living in this world who are also Native and that’s the story we want to tell."

“Frybread Queen” continues through March 27 at the Autry National Center in Griffith Park.

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