I’ve done redface. In the mid-1990s, just after I graduated from college, I got my first full-time professional acting job. I spent an entire summer in eastern Oklahoma at the Tsa-La-Gi Amphitheater, one of a small number of out-of-town actors and dancers hired to join local Cherokee performers in an outdoor drama about the Trail of Tears. The show began at sunset, and each night before dressing in a calico prairie dress and moccasins, I would wet a sponge, rub it into a dry pancake makeup, then smear my face, neck, arms, hands, and legs with the dark, reddish-brown paint intended to make me look Indigenous.
I am not. It did not.
We (there were other white actors who also wore the makeup) looked like white people who had been playing in a riverbank, our bodies covered in red clay. The name of the color on the canister was Texas Mud. Not only was I pretending to be the people I was spending the summer with, but I was also calling them dirt.
I am compelled to confess this to Mohegan theatre artist Madeline Sayet as we’re talking about some of the themes and topics she discusses in her solo show Where We Belong. Sayet encourages me to include it in this article, saying, “It’s everywhere.” Even Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, where Sayet is currently performing Where We Belong, acknowledges and apologizes in the Playbill note : “In 2010, The Public’s, and my own, long-term engagement with Native American theatre artists was seriously disrupted by thoughtless and damaging choices on my part. I deeply regret that breach, and apologize sincerely for those mistakes.”
In Where We Belong, running Off-Broadway at the Public’s LuEsther Hall through November 27, Sayet examines her own relationship with colonialism as a Native theatremaker. And it features a harsh critique of redface.
From kindergarten Thanksgiving pageants to community theatre productions of Peter Pan and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to the missteps major regional theatre, redface is still prevalent in American theatre (and culture). “[Redface] creates a feeling in people that Native culture belongs to them,” says Sayet. “I think it’s taken longer to get Native theatre on stage for that reason. It’s such a part of Americana.”
Redface began as the American government was actively attempting to wipe out Native American existence. The 1830 Indian Removal Act forcibly (by military gunpoint) removed tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands colonized by white settlers to land west of the Mississippi. Not only were tribes being relocated, but they were also being forced to assimilate to settler culture, stripped of their languages and customs—all while white Americans held a continued fascination with them. In the 30 years following Indian Removal, over 90 redface productions were on New York stages; Wild West shows toured the country in the 1880s featuring redface Indian princesses; and films of cowboys and Indians (played by white actors) have dominated American cinema since its inception through the 1950s. This has led to the misconception that Native Americans no longer exist.
“When I was growing up, it was very normal for people to assume there were no more Native people, especially in the Northeast,” Sayet says. “This tying of Native people to the past is a really big problem. That’s why it feels so important to be telling my story as myself.”
That’s where the narrative of Sayet’s Where We Belong begins. When she began writing the autobiographical work, she did not know it was going to be a play—and certainly not one that she would be performing herself. Originally from Mohegan lands in southeast Connecticut, Sayet went to NYU to study acting, but quickly transitioned to directing after several problematic interactions surrounding her Nativeness (such as a request to “sing that Indian song”). “I felt very liberated by the fact that I was no longer forced to fit into someone else’s rules of their world,” she says.
Following undergrad, Sayet moved to the U.K. for master’s work at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon. Where We Belong chronicles her difficult time in England, and her equally difficult adjustment to her return to the U.S. “I didn’t feel quite rooted to the ground the way that I usually did,” she says. “I was grappling with these questions like ‘What does it mean as a Mohegan person to miss England? Does it make me a traitor? What is an Indigenous person in a globalized world? Is there a place where I get to belong?”
As those questions poured out, so did her stories. Her time in England is marked with reminders that she doesn’t belong there. She’s conflicted over her love for Shakespeare’s language—the language of colonizers that caused the extinction of many Native languages, and struggles to find a place for Native American performers and stories and Shakespeare’s canon. And in one of the play’s most impactful critiques of colonialism, Sayet recounts a trip to a British museum where she learned that in addition to (ostensibly stolen) Indigenous artifacts from across the globe, the museum also holds over 12,000 human remains, with no intentions of repatriation.
Where We Belong made its premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe in London and is currently on a nationwide U.S. tour produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with Folger Shakespeare Library. Each theatre that presents the play must agree to an accountability rider that includes free tickets for Native people, an event around language revitalization, and the acknowledgment of the company’s history with redface and a promise not to repeat it. Sayet also requests that the theatre presents works by local Native writers. “I was very worried about a tour being a colonial act. I didn’t want my story to be supplanting local native stories,” she says.
The last few years have brought more visibility to Indigenous performers and writers: the television series Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs both center modern Native American characters, regional theatres are programming more Native American playwrights like Sayet and Mary Kathryn Nagle. And Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play will premiere on Broadway in the spring, making FastHorse the first Native American woman to have a play on Broadway. However, in a talkback following the Indigenous Community Performance of Where We Belong, Sayet spoke about the lack of a national Indigenous arts center. There is still an absence of dedicated space and funding for America’s first people to share their stories.
But Sayet has been comforted by how welcoming audiences have been to her stories, both Native Americans and non-Indigenous people. “People are in a space and they actually feel like something has shifted by the time they leave that space,” Sayet says to me. “Every single day, every single audience, I get a message from a stranger. Knowing that my offering is shifting something means a lot to me.”
With all the various implications of Where We Belong’s title, one thing is very clear: Native American stories belong on the American stage, told by Native American writers, and performed by Native American actors—not white actors in fringe and feathers, inexplicably painted to stand in for a people that still very much exist and deserve to be seen and heard.
Taking a page from Where We Belong's Playbill, I apologize for my own part in the damaging practice of redface. I am, though, eternally grateful for the Cherokee Nation people I met at Tsa-La-Gi and their continued influence in my life. I am also grateful to Madeline Sayet for her open and honest conversation for this article. I commit to use my platform to raise up Indigenous theatremakers.