Madeline Sayet begins her enlightening solo show at the Public Theater with an acknowledgement of the original inhabitants of Manhattan, the Lenape, which is as standard an opening message these days in New York theaters as the admonition to shut off our smart phones. But her description of “a thriving indigenous world,” with Broadway (a “trading trail”) at its center, is both detailed and heartfelt – and a fitting prologue to the play Sayet has written as a young member of a surviving indigenous world, the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut.
“Where We Belong” is at its best when Sayet explains the culture and history of her tribe, especially through the stories of family members and individual Mohegan ancestors. The daughter of the Mohegan’s Medicine Woman, Sayet was given a name both in English and in Mohegan; her middle name in English, Fielding, pays tribute to Fidelia Fielding, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan language, who died in 1908.
Sayet is more effective as a playwright than a performer, and the effort at a poetic effect in both Sayet’s language and Mei Ann Teo’s direction does not mask the gaps in the story that frames the play: Sayer’s personal journey to England to study for a PhD in Shakespeare, which leads to her feeling betrayed.
Sayet was taught by her family from an early age to correct the prevailing historical narrative that effectively erases Native Americans; she refused a class assignment on “Manifest Destiny from the settlers perspective,” telling her teachers that instead she would write “a paper on Wounded Knee so they learn something.” At the same time, though, she was also completely taken with the plays of William Shakespeare. “I find my voice in Shakespeare, my friends in Shakespeare, even my love in Shakespeare.” As a teenager, she split her time between working in the tribal office and performing in a local Shakespeare theater.
Her favorite play is “The Tempest,” she tells us, which she views from her distinct perspective: “Caliban is no monster. He’s indigenous. He’s me.”
She comes to the conclusion that Shakespeare, describing “our world only an ocean away” in 1611, was “anti-colonial,” especially since at the end of the play, the settlers leave the island. Certainly that means “Shakespeare wanted the colonists to leave too. To go back to England.”
This segues neatly to the story of Sachem Uncas, who founded the Mohegan tribe in the 1600s, breaking with the Pequot tribe of which he had been a member, in a dispute over how to deal with the new settlers from England. The Pequots chose to fight them. But, says Sayet, Uncas realized “the English will do whatever it takes to win. We can’t fight them. The only way to survive is to make peace with these strangers.”
The English only care about winning. Sayet says. They massacre the Pequots, burning their village to the ground, but leave the Mohegans alone. “I’ve always wondered what would have happened if we had allied with our people instead,” she says. “Is there a world in which we could have defeated the English together?”
Her thoughts about Shakespeare and England inspire her to direct a production of “The Tempest,” imagining that Caliban has gotten back his indigenous language — a pointed comment on the languages (like Mohegan) deliberately snuffed out by the colonial settlers and their descendants. Her production is well-received. It apparently helps her decide to combine her interests and study both Shakespeare and colonialism in England.
Her mother is taken aback by her decision: “Why? Do you want to be white?”
“No I don’t want to be white. I just want to be a part of something I’m good at. Shakespeare isn’t only for white people.”
Her experiences in England are not as she had hoped, judging by her recounting of conversations she had with people who are at best clueless — one uses “primitive’ to describe her culture; another giving her a tour of the British Museum is cavalier about the human remains of some 12,000 people stored there. (Sayet does not attempt to do characters; she relates these conversations in her own voice, and they come off as generic jerks rather than individuals with distinct lives.) She tells the fascinating and heartbreaking stories of two different Mohegan ancestors who decades apart in the 18th century traveled to England on a mission for their people, both of which ended in betrayal. She discovers one of them, Mahomet Weyonomon, memorialized on a rock in a churchyard. “I return with tobacco and sit with the only other Mohegan in London, this rock, when I need comfort. I speak Mohegan to him. He hasn’t heard it in hundreds of years.”
Sayet is adept at injecting humor, some of it self-deprecating, in her monologue, and she weaves throughout the play an artful metaphor about birds and wolves directly connected to the Mohegan language and lore. But her predominant tone is a palpable resentment at atrocities and betrayals, which is understandable when dealing with history. It was harder for me to grasp the use of this tone when she recounts her personal experiences, as if her treatment both in the U.S. and the U.K was similar to that received by her ancestors. She compares theater companies interested in (but ignorant of) her work to British colonizers (“they care about winning”); and she implies a similar dynamic when talking about her difficulties with completing her PhD. She takes apparent umbrage at her advisors’ insistence that she be less passionate in her writing.
Are we to understand that this standard approach to academic writing is somehow a colonizer attitude that violates Mohegan culture? If so, it would have been helpful if she had made this case more explicitly. She drops a hint that she began to doubt the value, and the accuracy, of exploring a connection between Shakespeare and anti-colonialism (or even just colonialism.) But this is done so fleetingly that we’re left wondering if it could really have been just her advisors’ insistence on academic writing that she viewed as a betrayal large enough to turn her off to her pursuits in England.
I would have loved to hear more details about her perspective on Shakespeare and how it evolved. Such exposition might feel out of place in a different work of theater, one whose appeal lies solely in its theatricality. The director certainly tries to goose up the sense of drama in Sayet’s story with a constant underscoring (music by Erik Schilke), and with a set design (by Hao Bai) that alternates between a starry sky and harsh white bars of light, meant as a metaphor for the borders she has crossed that kept her away from her homeland. But the strength of “Where We Belong” is not in how Madeline Sayet dramatizes her stories but in how they illuminate a culture, in the past and in the present, that we should know more about.
Where We Belong
Public Theater through November 27, 2022
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Written and performed by Madeline Sayet
Directed by Mei Ann Teo
Production design by Hao Bai, costume design by Asa Benally, composition and sounddesign by Erik Schilke, and dramaturgy by Vera Starbard