Daily Press (Sunday)

Native storytelle­rs enjoying a rare spotlight

It’s a moment they hope can be more than that

- By Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK — The financial crisis of 2008 hit Mary Kathryn Nagle differentl­y. As a playwright and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she saw parallels to events that harmed Indigenous people centuries ago.

Her play “Manahatta” juxtaposes the recent mortgage meltdown, when thousands lost their homes to predatory lenders, with the shady 17th-century Dutch who swindled and violently pushed Native Americans off their ancestral lands.

“A lot of times history does repeat itself,” Nagle said. “I’m really interested in the ways in which we can connect to our past, carry it with us, learn from it, and maybe change outcomes so that we’re not just doomed to repeat the past in the present.”

Nagle’s 2018 play has landed in New York City at the prestigiou­s Public Theater this winter, the latest in a flowering of Native

storytelli­ng. Barriers are being broken, from “Reservatio­n Dogs,” “Dark Winds” and “Rutherford Falls” on TV to “Prey” on the big screen and Larissa FastHorse’s becoming the first Indigenous

female playwright on Broadway.

“I hope it’s not a moment. I hope it’s the beginning of an era,” said FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. “We

stand on the shoulders of so many folks that came before us.”

In 2020, the University of California, Los Angeles published a diversity report that examined media content from 2018-19 and found Native representa­tion in film to be between 0.3% and 0.5%. In television or on stage, Native representa­tion was virtually nonexisten­t. (According to the Census, 9.7 million Americans claimed some Indigenous heritage in 2020, or 2.9% of the total U.S. population.)

“The truth was most theaters had never produced a single play by a Native playwright. Most Hollywood film studios had never produced any content actually written or produced by Natives. It may have been about some Native people, but it was not written by Native people. And we’ve just seen that flipped on its head,” Nagle said.

Non-Native storytelle­rs are also exploring the history of white atrocities on Native Americans, with Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” telling the story of the Reign of Terror in Oklahoma, and documentar­y-maker Ken Burns examining an animal central to the Great Plains with “The American Buffalo.”

Nagle recalls moving to New

shoot the series — but also where the contestant­s would sleep and eat between filming.

They received matching green tracksuits and were taken to the first game: “Red Light, Green Light.”

“I ran straight up to the front of the start line, and I was so ready to go,” DiPette said.

The first episode, which debuted on Nov. 22, included panning views and drone shots of a playing field. The walls of the giant indoor arena were decorated to look like the wheat field surrounded by quaint houses from the original show. As these images flash onto the screen, the show’s viewers hear the voices of the most cutthroat contestant­s.

“Sympathy, it’s only a weakness. My biggest strength would be manipulati­on,” a man says.

Another man: “This place is gonna eat you up and spit you out.”

In “Red Light, Green Light,” the 456 contestant­s crowded along the starting line and had to advance toward a replica of a giant robot featured in the original show. But players could move only when a light was green. When the light turned red, everyone had to freeze. The robot’s head swiveled from its front to its back, controllin­g the lights. The light was green only when the robot looked away from the contestant­s. Those who continued to advance down the field after the robot’s gaze had wheeled around to face them were eliminated, and bags of ink hidden in their tracksuits exploded as a representa­tion of death.

On TV, it appeared as if the contestant­s were frozen in a matter of minutes.

“But every freeze we had to hold was actually like 25 to 30 minutes,” DiPette said. The show makers needed to deploy drones and capture the best angles of the action.

“Like four hours into this thing, I was only three-quarters of the way across, and in agony.”

Of the 456 contestant­s, 259 were eliminated. The remaining returned to a giant windowless dorm with bunk beds; there they lived for a couple of days as producers introduced secret challenges for select players and took others aside for interviews and confession­als. DiPette floated between quickly forming friend groups and chatted to pass the time.

She watched some love triangles starting to form, relationsh­ips that weren’t shown on TV, before the start of the second game, “Dalgona.” In that game, players had to cut a shape from a piece of honeycomb. Some shapes, like triangles, were easier to cut than others, like stars. Negotiatio­ns between players over who would be assigned what shape shaped the drama. Sixty-nine people were eliminated.

Back in the dorms, most of the players were convinced that the third game had to be tug of war, and the fittest began forming alliances. DiPette managed to snag a spot in an athletic-looking cohort, but she and everyone else was in for a big surprise.

The show’s game order was not, it turned out, going to follow the sequence of the challenges in the original drama. Instead of tug of war, contestant­s’ third challenge was to play a team version of the children’s board game “Battleship,” involving guessing the coordinate­s of opposing fleets. The set looked like a game board. Players sat in large replica warships while their team captains stood. If a ship was sunk, the players sitting in it were eliminated. If the team as a whole lost, its captain was eliminated.

DiPette was her team’s captain. She lost, she explained, when one of her team members screamed out the last coordinate of their own ship in an ill-advised attempt at reverse psychology.

She was driven back to a London hotel with others eliminated that day. She and some others had a party and spent the next day on a pub crawl.

Back in Virginia Beach, she slept for hours on end.

“The adrenaline crash was real.”

 ?? JOAN MARCUS/THE PUBLIC THEATER ?? Rainbow Dickerson, from left, Sheila Tousey, Jeffrey King, David Kelly and Joe Tapper during a performanc­e of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Manahatta” in New York.
JOAN MARCUS/THE PUBLIC THEATER Rainbow Dickerson, from left, Sheila Tousey, Jeffrey King, David Kelly and Joe Tapper during a performanc­e of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Manahatta” in New York.
 ?? NETFLIX ?? Jessi DiPette of Virginia Beach plays “Battleship” in the Netflix reality show “Squid Game: The Challenge” earlier this year.
NETFLIX Jessi DiPette of Virginia Beach plays “Battleship” in the Netflix reality show “Squid Game: The Challenge” earlier this year.

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