Murielle Borst Tarrant has a serious message to get across to audiences and she's hoping that with a well-crafted script and a little humor, it will happen.
Through an Our Nation's Spaces grant from First Peoples Fund, Tarrant has partnered with the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York City to work on a project designed to raise awareness of urban Indigenous arts and to facilitate discussion about cultural identity and Native images in the media.
"There's a misappropriation of Native images and they are often derogatory," said Tarrant, a member of the Kuna and Rappahanock Nations.
"How do I talk about that as a theater person?" she asked. "How do I talk about it as an artist?"
Through performance workshops and panel discussions, Tarrant will develop a work called "Don't Feed the Indians," set to premier at La MaMa during its 2015/16 season.
The project, Tarrant said, is loosely based on Dante's "Inferno" and will portray the Native American sideshows and pageants common in the 19th century.
The challenge, Tarrant said, is tackling a serious issue in a way that helps the audience understand and feel a connection, but not feel condemned.
"Most don't even know it's going on," she said. "How do I do this without it being a lecture? I will do it with humor, in a way that the audience doesn't walk out and feel like they've been hit over the head."
Tarrant and an Indigenous Collective will also establish the Urban Indigenous Arts and Culture Symposium that will launch in November 2014 during Native American Heritage Month. The symposium will highlight Native performance and bring together Indigenous artists and scholars to discuss Native arts and culture and address issues of Native representation in American pop culture, said Mia Yoo, artistic director at La Mama.
"We hope to open a dialogue and to expose our audience to alternative perspectives that challenge the status quo," she said. "In response we will present authentic and diverse Native performances so often neglected in theaters and arts institutions throughout the country."
The work has already begun.
Tarrant has started research for the writing of the script of "Don't Feed the Indians," which will begin in the spring and culminate in a works-in-progress reading of the play. The reading will be followed by a talkback and panel discussion.
In the fall, La MaMa will host the first symposium, which will take place over three days and include readings, panel discussions, and Native performance from several Native artists, as well as a workshop performance of "Don't Feed the Indians."
The work will all be part of Safe Harbors, an Indigenous art and theater collective organized to discuss Native issues.
"We wanted to take all Indigenous things in New York City and give it a home," Tarrant said. "This is a safe place to talk about things."
Yoo said it is La MaMa's first experience working with First Peoples Fund.
"We have found our engagement with the organization incredibly rewarding," Yoo said, especially as there are not many organizations dedicated to funding Native artists.
"This grant has been invaluable," she added. "We're dedicated to the promotion of diverse voices in the arts and we are grateful to First Peoples Fund and their support of our efforts."
Tarrant has high hopes for the project.
"I hope the audience learns something, that they are entertained, that they see the historical trauma, and they see it on the mind of their human spirit," she said. "We are human beings and to treat us as a stereotype dehumanizes us. Every human being was born into this world with dignity and has a right to live with dignity."