Oklahomans have a cultural heritage rich with Native American tradition. Although the reason most tribes came to live in Oklahoma is tragic, we have those circumstances to thank for our cultural legacy. Former Oklahoma City Theatre Company Artistic Director Richard Nelson sought to celebrate these traditions in the context of theater, and the result was the Native American New Play Festival.
The festival had a quiet beginning in 2009. Rachel Irick is the current artistic director of the company, and she plans to continue making the festival bigger and better every year. The event itself has evolved from what she described as “a subdued affair” to a well-attended, multifaceted event with dramatic readings and participatory events like Native song and dance classes.
“We’ve been growing and growing every year and trying to do better, reaching into the communities involving more Native people,” Irick said. “I want this to belong to the Native American community.”
There will be three staged readings on Saturday and Sunday as well as acting classes for teens May 17. The classes are geared toward Native American youth, but anyone is welcome to attend. They are free of charge, and lunch is provided.
“One of our challenges is finding Native American actors to fill these roles,” Irick said. “So let’s develop these young actors who have a little bit of interest in theater, so maybe in five years they’re starring in the next show.”
The featured play this year is Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta, which runs Thursday through May 18. Nagle is a native Oklahoman, but her play explores the historical context of the island of Manhattan, sold by the Lenape Delaware tribe to the Dutch.
“The Dutch basically tricked the Lenape into selling the island for 60 guilders, which was, like, $400,” Mitchell said.
The play explores the impact on future generations of Lenape, from its distrust of colonial settlers to the relocation of the tribe to Oklahoma. The modern part of the play takes place in both contemporary Bartlesville and New York City.
When Irick asked Mitchell to direct the play, he was already taken with it.
“I had already started to form this bond with the play, going up to New York and getting to look at the natural history of the island,” Mitchell said. “And the language has been fascinating.”
This experience has provided Mitchell with a chance to get firsthand knowledge of Native American culture, and the process has been especially rewarding for him.
“They are there with open arms, wanting us to learn as much as we can,” he said. “They have been eager to have their nation represented.”