Wood Bones Review: Native American Theater in New York

Albert Ybarra as Leroy in “Wood Bones”

“Wood Bones,” a play by William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. that marks the inaugural production of The Eagle Project, a Native American theater company in New York City, is a work that excited me – until I actually attended it.

“When was the last time you saw a Native Tribal play, written by a Native Tribal person, featuring a Native Tribal cast?“  playwright Yellow Robe, who is a member of the Assiniboine Tribe and grew up in Wolf Point, Montana on a reservation, asked interviewer  Adam Szymkowicz. As he told Native News Network,“it is important for us to tell our stories, otherwise, they will not be told.”

“Wood Bones” is produced by a new New York theater company, led by artistic director Ryan Victor Pierce (aka Little Eagle, a member of the Naticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe), who believes that theater should be a “sacred place where ideas flow…and uncomfortable truths can be voiced.”

The play is based on an intriguing, if not wholly unfamiliar, premise — the different people who have lived in a single house. The house itself  — or the spirit of the house — is a character, named 121, its street address, portrayed by actress Dawn Jamieson.

The first act begins with a scene between 121 and a Native American named Leroy, conducting some kind of ritual. Then there is a scene with a Native American couple looking to buy the house, followed by one with two men fixing up the place and complaining of previous tenants. The scene switches to another couple, a Native American man named Sam married to a white woman named Christen, who has a black child Mary from a previous encounter. They too are about to buy the house. Sam expresses prejudice against his adopted daughter while with his wife; but he is secretly molesting her. Through each of these scenes, 121 attempts to talk to the characters, and they think it’s the house settling, or wonder whether it means the place is haunted. Only Leroy is able to talk with 121 directly.

By intermission, I was itching to leave. It is an uncomfortable truth that the performance I saw was poorly done. In fairness, it was clearly an off night: One of the regular actors had an emergency and was replaced by the director, who was on book.  It’s hard to see, though, how this explains the glacial pace of nearly every scene in the first act. In addition, the chronology was unclear. Virtually no effort was made to establish in what era each scene was taking place. Were we going back and forth in time? Was this all supposed to be happening in current times, offering alternative realities? Were the playwright and/or director being inattentive, or were they trying to make a point — that time is fluid, and eras unimportant? The lack of clarity was disorienting, and the cumulative experience dulling.

Veracity Butcher and Freedome Bradley
Veracity Butcher and Freedome Bradley

Guilt and inertia kept me in my seat for the second act; also habit and policy. And, as is often the case when I’ve committed to seeing through to the end of a show that I’ve given up on, I discovered something worthwhile in the second act. There is a scene when the sheriff and the owner of the property confront the Native American couple who’ve just signed the lease and moved into the house, Jacob and Vera, played by the exquisitely named actors Freedome Bradley and Veracity Butcher. The lease was with the owner’s father, who has been declared incompetent, and so they are being evicted. It’s a heavy-handed scene — the owner is a jerk whose bigotry is so over-the-top  that audiences can too easily dismiss it as unrealistic, especially since it is not completely clear in what era this is occurring — but the scene’s intensity suggests what this play could have been.   In another scene, the two men “renovating” the house are revealed to be in truth ransacking it, selling off its valuable fixtures, and cutting it up into apartments, which might well serve as a metaphor for the Native American experience.

Threaded through “Wood Bones” are enough provocative if not fully explained allusions to Native American culture and practice to cheer on The Eagle Project in its mission, and hope for a more satisfying realization of it.

Wood Bones

Eagle Project at Abingdon Theater Arts Complex

312 West 36th Street

Written by William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.

Directed by Bob Jaffe

Cast: Dawn Jamieson (121), Albert Ybarra (Leroy), Jacob (Freedome Bradley), Vera (Veracity Butcher), David Fierro (Neal), Ryan Victor Pierce (Calvin), Robert Baumgardner (Sam), Joleen Wilkinson (Christen), Eden Sanaa Duncan-Smith (Mary)

Through May 18th

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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