An Epic Pandemic Theatre Trek


Kenny Ramos, Larissa FastHorse, and Michael John Garcés walk the prairie.

This is the first installment of a three-part story.


The Playwright Returns

August 2021

At the heart of this story, an acclaimed artist comes home to fulfill a lifelong ambition: making a play with and for her own Native community.

We roll up to the St. Francis Mission in the rented Jeep. We’ve been traveling the state commonly known as South Dakota for most of a week, starting in Rapid City. Yesterday we entered the tribally sovereign lands of the Oglala Lakota Nation. We made our way, with several stops, through the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the largest reservations in the U.S. and its poorest county. We’ve reached the south central part of the state, the Rosebud Reservation, where the playwright’s Sicangu Lakota family comes from. It’s a place she loves and cherishes, rife as it is with the emotions of family history, and, of course, history history.

“There’s nowhere I’d rather be on the Earth, nowhere on this planet,” the playwright says. “That’s always been the case. Unfortunately, my work doesn’t live here. It’s the first time I’ve been able to bring my work here. I’ve been working my whole career to get back.”

We’ve been traveling together for almost a week: the playwright; the director, Michael John Garcés, who is also the artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company; actor and Cornerstone ensemble member Kenny Ramos; and me. St. Francis is a spur-of-the-moment pullover, not on the itinerary. The playwright remembers it somewhat from childhood. She wants to check it out.

The playwright, who trades off driving with Michael, has been riding shotgun. She emerges first, and I follow her, walking toward the Jesuit mission’s main building. A man, maybe in his late 50s, steps out of the main door, watching us. The playwright ambles toward him with the relaxed grace of someone who has spent over half her life as a professional dancer, which she has, and the confidence of someone who is at home. Which she is.

“Hello,” she says. “My name is Larissa FastHorse.”

And the man she has never met, who will introduce himself as Harold Compton, chief operating officer of the mission, replies simply, “You’re famous.”

As someone who has worked in the American nonprofit theatre for nearly 40 years and with playwrights for much of that time, it’s hard for me to imagine any theatre artist who is not a media star being famous in the Northern Plains. Let alone a playwright. Eighteen months from now, Larissa will in fact achieve unique status as the first Indigenous woman writer to have a play on Broadway, but that’s a long, uncertain way off, especially in this first queasy calm between COVID-19 heaves.

Yet famous she is. She’s from here, and she’s cut a path through the wider world that few can claim. Starting as a professional ballet dancer and choreographer until injuries ended her dance career, she wrote and sold two TV shows and made a film, even before her first plays were commissioned, written, and produced all over the country, before she won national awards and prizes and had articles written about her accomplishments. If folks here see her as a local hero—and many more will by the time The Thanksgiving Play opens on Broadway in April 2023—she wears it lightly and connects easily, despite being a self-proclaimed introvert.

Larissa has lived most of her adult life in Los Angeles and traveled widely for work, but in some ways she’s never left South Dakota. She’s returned frequently to lead youth workshops, first in dance and then writing, on reservations and in towns across the state, almost since she graduated high school in 1989. I wonder if this geographic split—home always being two different places—is a product of her origin story.

Born to Lakota parents in the Okreek village on Rosebud, Larissa FastHorse was brought to white parents, Ed and Rhoda Baer, at 11 months, and open-adopted by them seven months later. She was, for the Baers, the “miracle baby” they’d tried and wished for in the first 22 years of their marriage. Larissa spent her early childhood in the tiny city of Winner, S.D., before moving to the state capitol, Pierre (pronounced Peer, thank you).

Her parents made sure she stayed connected to her Lakota community and culture, something that came naturally to Ed, who worked with Indigenous people throughout the state as an agent of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and eventually as executive director of the Office of Correctional Services. He helped found and taught at Native schools and colleges, including Oglala Lakota College and Sinte Gleska University, before becoming a founding professor at Capitol University Center, teaching sociology for 20 years, including to many Native students. Early in his marriage to Larissa’s mom, they spent about five years in Nigeria, where he taught, before returning to the Plains to join the faculty at a Lutheran high school in Valentine, Neb., just across the South Dakota border. Larissa, “a daddy’s girl from day one,” in her own words, inherited her sense of service from him.

Still, as she told New Yorker theatre critic Vinson Cunningham in a 2023 radio interview, “When I was younger, it was very painful to be separated from a lot of things I felt like I couldn’t partake in, because I wasn’t raised on the reservation, or I’d been away from my Lakota family so long…Now I really recognize it as my superpower, that I can take Lakota culture and experiences and Indigenous experiences and translate them for white audiences—which, unfortunately, are still the majority of audiences in American theatre.” Two worlds at once.

Michael John Garcés, Kenny Ramos, Harold Compton, and Larissa FastHorse.

Michael and Kenny walk up behind us to the accompaniment of summer cicadas, and Harold Compton offers to tour us through the closed St. Francis Mission buildings. He unlocks the St. Borromeo Parish Church, a breathtaking fusion of Catholic and Lakota iconography, suggesting a sympathetic alliance that is contradicted by historical fact. Then, like the master of keys in a magical children’s story, he parts the sealed doors of the Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum and ushers us into the most extensive collection of Sicangu Lakota artifacts outside of the Smithsonian—more than 2,000 items of art and living culture, including clothing, handicrafts, tools, regalia, weaponry, tipis—plus a 42,000-item photographic archive. We are alone in the museum, which has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic and will stay closed due to staffing shortages, even as the world begins to open up. Harold, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, worked for 35 years at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and still serves as Deputy Director of Policy and Research for the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Land Enterprise. He talks us through the history of the mission and its school and walks us through generations of Lakota life.

He doesn’t mince words: Some people are very positive about the Catholic education that was available to or forced upon the Native people starting in the late 19th century. Others “want to burn this place down.” Seven weeks ago, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania announced that it would exhume the bodies of Rosebud Sioux children and return them to their families—9 of at least 189 students thought to be buried there, victims of physical and sexual abuse in the school’s 30 years of operation, beginning in 1879.

Carlisle was the first of more than 100 such U.S. residential facilities to which Native children were sent for Christian reeducation. There were others in Canada, including Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, where, less than three months before we arrived at this mission, 215 children’s bodies were dug out of unmarked graves. There they were stripped of their Indigenous culture, language, and names, as a means to, in the words of Carlisle’s founder, “kill the Indian” and “save the man.”

Back inside the offices, we meet one of the mission priests, and Harold briefly pops into a Zoom meeting projected on his office screen. As we say goodbye, he pulls a newspaper clipping off a pile on his desk. It’s an article about Larissa winning the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” Award the previous year. He cut it out when it first appeared and kept it at hand. Now the subject of the article has miraculously appeared in his office. He asks her to autograph it.

“That was a quintessential Cornerstone moment,” Michael tells me, back in the Jeep.

“You just show up, and everything happens,” Larissa explains.

“Everything,” echoes Kenny.

Enter the Ensemble

June 1986-present

At the heart of this story: A legendary theatre company returns to its rural roots with an ambitious tour that will take it to 17 venues in 22 days, in 15 towns across 2,000 miles, in a handful of rental cars—one of which will get stuck in the prairie sand—and a leaky Penske cargo van.

And yet Larissa FastHorse is not the story. “This work isn’t about me,” she insists. “It’s not about centering my voice and my desires. It’s about centering community.”

Centering community isn’t merely a part of Cornerstone’s mission, it’s the lede. “Cornerstone Theater Company collaborates with communities.” So reads the first of a three-sentence, 28-word mission statement that rivals any in the American theatre for succinct clarity: “Our work reflects complexity, disrupts assumptions, welcomes difference, and amplifies joy. We aim to advance a more compassionate, equitable, and just world.”

Co-founded by Alison Carey and Bill Rauch in June 1986, the original Cornerstone ensemble comprised a troupe of Harvard grads who shared a beautiful dream of taking theatre into the American heartland, to make plays with the folks they found there. Cornerstone was the youngest of a burgeoning field of community-engaged ensembles who were creating a “professional, activist, community theatre of place,” as I called them in these pages almost 30 years ago. CTC’s forerunners included Junebug Productions (New Orleans); Pregones Theater (the Bronx); Tennessee’s Road Company and Carpetbag Players; Roadside Theater in Appalachia; El Teatro Campesino, El Teatro de la Esperanza, and Traveling Jewish Theater (Calif.); and Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and Touchstone Theatre, to name a few.

Cornerstone initially traveled the country, adapting classics with and for the people of places that, even to the early visionaries of the regional theatre, would have seemed far-flung: Norcatur, Kans.; Dinwiddie County, Va.; Port Gibson, Miss.; Marfa, Texas. About six years later, the company settled in Los Angeles, a way of digging into place, which had always been important to its aesthetic and social values. They could dig deeper, they believed, if they stayed put. And because L.A. is a city of many communities, they could collaborate widely without traveling far.

The makeup of the ensemble would also change along with its methods. The original company was all white; the current L.A.-based ensemble is approximately two-thirds artists of color. The ensemble defines itself as “an evolving group of people at the artistic heart of this theatre company creating through conversation, play, compassion, and consensus.” In the 37 years since its founding, Cornerstone has created 150 original productions and collaborated with an astonishing range of U.S. towns and cities, as well as urban neighborhoods, activist networks, faith-based communities, and—over the past 10 years of sustained work in L.A., Arizona, and South Dakota—more than 40 Native nations.

These numbers—37, 150, 10, 40—only begin to tell the story. Cornerstone’s collaboration with Larissa and these nations has led to three plays: Urban Rez in L.A., performed in 2016; Native Nation, a collaboration with Gammage, the arts center at Arizona State University (2019); and now, after more than four years of engagement in South Dakota, Wicoun (pronounced Wich’oon). Urban Rez involved 13 Indigenous actors representing 15 tribal communities, though only Kenny Ramos (Barona Band of Mission Indians/Kumeyaay Nation) was a representative of the 111 federally recognized tribes in California. (Another 80 California tribes are unrecognized by the U.S. government, thus federally declared extinct.) Arizona’s Indigenous population, numerically close to California’s, represents a greater, more visible percentage, since the state is so much smaller. (In the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey’s one-year estimate, Arizona ranked first, just ahead of California, with over 332,000 Indigenous people from 22 tribes, a few of which spill across borders with adjoining states). At Gammage, Cornerstone hired 38 Indigenous actors (in a cast of 40) and showcased the work of 400 Indigenous artists.

This quantity of engagement has been matched by its depth, as the lead-up to Wicoun also proves. Cornerstone artists make 10 “engagement” trips to South Dakota between July 2019 and the start of rehearsals in April 2023, each lasting a week or two and requiring as much as 2,000 miles of driving. Each trip—each stop—is different. They meet with potential partner organizations, ranging from other theatres to schools, social service and community centers, powwow committees, a skate park, city administrators and mayors, tribal health boards, and youth development programs. They confer with regular advisors and new contacts across the Northern Plains. They attend art exhibits and festivals, powwows, rodeos, student poetry slams, theatre performances, and fairs. They hold talking/story circles, at which any number of people might show up, 40 or a handful.

“The work is predicated on depth of listening and service,” Larissa says. “The work happens at a restaurant in Chamberlain or a picnic table in Lower Brule or a bar out in the middle of nowhere—it’s always uncertain, it’s always intense, it’s always surprising. You can have 10 story circles of 20, 30, or 40 people, and it’s one conversation with one person that changes everything. That gives me the key to how to tell the story for the community.”

These plays aren’t Cornerstone’s first collaborations with Indigenous communities, as Peter Howard, one of two founding members still in the ensemble (the other is designer Lynn Jeffries), reminds me. Still, those early collaborations with American Indian communities—The House on Walker River (1988), an adaptation of The Oresteia performed in a tribal welding shop on the Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation in Schurz, Nev., and the Ibsen adaptation Pier Gynt in Eastport, Maine, performed in 1990 with some residents of the local Passamaquoddy reservation—were quite different than the last three. For one thing, they were adaptations, “very much initiated by that all-white company collaborating with a Native community, but not with Native leadership or Native inspiration,” Peter concedes.

While Cornerstone’s journey is the stuff of theatre legend, it isn’t necessarily the stuff of national currency. At a small picnic with colleagues in Brooklyn in the summer of 2023, I talk about my travels with Cornerstone. The picnickers are excited by what I tell them, but I am startled to learn that no one at this cross-generational party of theatre artists has even heard of the company. I’ve grown used to professional myopia both around companies outside of New York (other than large institutional theatres), and especially around ensembles creating work with and for specific communities. I am still shocked. Until I remember who Cornerstone is for.

Cornerstone’s ensemble, the seat of all major decisions, chooses the communities it collaborates with. Except for occasional past projects in larger institutional settings like Yale Repertory Theater and Arena Stage, its audiences are mostly made up of people in places underserved by theatre. From early days in Norcatur and Port Gibson to more recent projects in L.A.’s Skid Row or the Jordan Downs, a public housing development in the Watts neighborhood, Cornerstone has performed, not for a national audience, but for the partner communities themselves, including the families of the locals they cast and their neighbors. It’s the opposite of mainstream production intended for anyone who can afford a ticket. Most of Cornerstone’s performances are free anyway (with a box for donations).

Because every encounter and every performance in every tour venue is different and unpredictable—small audiences, street noise, dogs barking, people coming and going, late starts, last-minute confirmations and cancellations—the attention and payoffs of more traditional productions don’t apply. In 2014-15, an 11-month, 10-stop California tour of founder Alison Carey’s adapted The Tempest did perform in L.A. and San Francisco, but also in rural towns with populations in the hundreds and names like Weedpatch, where ensemble member Bahni Turpin reportedly exclaimed, “I’m about to go onstage and play Prospera in Weedpatch!”

the tempest cornerstone
Peter Howard in “The Tempest.”

In his influential book, The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living, the historian and educator Joseph M. Marshall III, also Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, collected stories exemplifying the virtues that form “the foundation and moral sustenance of Lakota culture.” Four of these virtues play a prominent part in Wicoun, the play will Larissa eventually write. A fifth virtue—which for Marshall is the principal one—seems to me to apply to the work of Cornerstone generally. Unsiiciyapi translates from the Lakota as “humility….to be humble, modest, unpretentious,” to take “the quiet path.”

I don’t want to romanticize this. People work hard in the theatre. The Cornerstone folks—artists, administrators, and technicians—work as hard as any I’ve seen, often doing several jobs at once. They rarely enjoy the luxury of professional specialization. The “famous” playwright, for example, makes shopping and car rental runs with the artistic director, cues actors in rehearsal, and, as a matter of course, hauls sandbags and set pieces during load-in and strike at each stop on the tour. Designers Nephelie Andonyadis (sets and props) and Lynn Jeffries (puppets) build much of what they design alone. They also supervise (which means fix and rebuild) their creations during the tour. Costume designer Jeanette Tizapapalotl Godoy tends to wardrobe and serves as dresser throughout. Michael Garcia, Cornerstone’s associate producer, acts as rehearsal stage manager until performance stage manager Maria V. Oliveira is free to join the company and take over for tech, at which point Garcia returns to L.A. for other Cornerstone projects and misses the tour altogether.

In the weeks before the tour launches, members of CTC’s administrative and production staff, including managing director Megan Wanlass, can be found in the dining hall of the rehearsal and living quarters at almost all hours, working heads down. On one trip I accompany this same executive leader to buy glue sticks for the puppets and to make copies of a prop driver’s license. Office Depot employees aren’t allowed to Xerox “fake” licenses, so Megan color-copies it herself, handing it over for lamination.

“We’re a small company on a really small scale,” founding ensemble member Peter Howard emphasizes. While theatres across the country have experienced post-pandemic hiring challenges, both Peter and Nephelie will later reflect on the particular stresses of this demanding project—which, while taking good care of community participants, never quite achieves Cornerstone’s “best” practices of caring for its own people.

“Was the project more ambitious than anyone predicted?” Peter will wonder later. “More expensive? Were there ways in which a different kind of planning might have eased some of the shortages we experienced?”

Though Wicoun stretches the company thin, it never veers off-purpose. As Peter puts it, “I see these projects as experiences in the reality of welcome and invitation, building relationship and mutual understanding—the kind of mutual understanding that in my life has only come through making things together, working on that third thing that is not about you and not about me, but about this thing between us that we’re creating together.” As the ensemble’s longest-serving actor and, over the decade of collaboration with Larissa, often the lone white man in mostly Indigenous casts, Peter is both master artist and cultural novice, again and again.

“For me,” he continues, “a gift and a necessity in my life is to be, via our Native leadership, welcomed into places and into community and conversations that I would never have access to otherwise. And to feel that we are moving forward in Indigenous/settler relationship and trying to figure out how, and even whether, we can work together to heal and to create opportunity. I have a stake in that as much as anyone.”

Joseph Marshall again: “A person [who] walks with face toward the Earth…can see the path ahead. On the other hand, the arrogant man who walks with his head high to bask in the glory of the moment will stumble often because he is more concerned with the moment than what lays ahead.” I ask artistic director Michael John Garcés (I’ll refer to him as Michael to distinguish him from producer Garcia) about my idea that humility is the company’s cardinal virtue. He concurs, adding, “At its best.”

Its best isn’t easy. Every community has different history and different expectations, and, as Michael points out, “Native communities are as diverse and also similar as any communities.” If humility is a guiding virtue, Peter suggests, it is “that forced humility of realizing that the kinds of changes this play talks about needing in the world are not going to come as a result of one play.”

The D/N/Lakota Project

2019-2023 

At the heart of this story: the people themselves, the Oyate.

Although it will be seen by white audiences (in Rapid City and at the Black Hills Playhouse, for example), Wicoun, like the two earlier “trilogy” plays, is intended for Native audiences. It is by them, for them, about them, and, thanks to the rental cars and the stamina of this troupe, it will be performed near them. A Lakota playwright will create a Lakota play with and for Lakota people on Lakota land. A first.

Then, in late 2019, someone in Vermillion, S.D., asks if Dakota will be welcome to participate. Yes! And so, what begins as “The Lakota Project” becomes the “D/N/Lakota Project.”

The Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota—which, as Michael puts it, are “different bands of the same people”—originally called themselves “Oyate” or “the People.” But the name given them by the Ojibwe, Nadouessioux, later shortened by French settlers in the 1600s to Sioux, stuck. The seven different tribes or “Council Fires” that make up these neighboring nations continue to stress their kinship as well as their differences. Over a delicious home-cooked lunch at her kitchen table—chicken and wild rice soup with pieces of boiled squash and bread—Dusty Nelson, a community member on Pine Ridge, reels off friendly Lakota jokes at the expense of other tribes. Dusty recently started a daycare center in her home and serves on the board of Rock the Rez, an organization that focuses on female/trans/two-spirit empowerment. She clearly enjoys her intertribal needling: “There are two types of people,” she tells us. “Lakota and people who want to be Lakota.”

“The D/N/Lakota Project” title will give way to the final one, Wicoun. The word doesn’t translate directly into English, but, as Larissa explains it, it means “way of life”—spiritual, cultural, and physical all at once. Wicoun comes with a subtitle too: “A Play With and About the Oceti Sakowin.” When I ask Larissa and Michael whether they will translate or define the Lakota term Oceti Sakowin for a non-Native audience, they are both firm: No. First of all, people who live in South Dakota know what it means, they tell me. Second, if they (i.e. white people, or, in Lakota, Wašíču) don’t know, they can do the work and look it up. Learn. As I suggest my readers do now.

Wicoun is the most geographically rangy of the three Native nation trilogy plays. With the exception of some rural outreach in Arizona, the first two were urban projects. Between summer of 2019 and 2023 the company will cover tens of thousands of miles, crossing the state many times over, almost all their stops in small towns and rural parts of eight of the state’s nine reservations. (On the final tour, in less than three weeks, Michael will log 3,672 miles driven on his rental car. “I’m an accountant’s son, so…”) “Cornerstone has done a lot of work in rural communities,” Michael explains, “but never this particular inquiry into contemporary Indigeneity.” Additionally, though Larissa wrote all three plays (for what wasn’t originally intended as a trilogy), this is the first time she is working in the “community where she’s from,” as Michael puts it, “versus her being, albeit Indigenous, a guest in the land where we’re making the work.”

Everywhere Cornerstone travels, the folks they talk with want the play to “be about the nation, not one specific place,” Michael explains. At each stop they’re urged to include other tribal communities. As a result, the scope of the play-to-be keeps growing, beyond anything they’ve done or may be able to accomplish, geographically or financially. Participation raises other questions. “The challenge is always about inclusiveness versus depth of experience,” Larissa explains. “The wider you get in terms of how many people can participate, there’s just less of you to go around. If you have a smaller group of people, the more individual attention people get. The quality of experience can be, in a certain sense, better—certainly deeper.”

Larissa and Michael hope that the play will end up with the scale of the first two: between 15 and 40 actors, with choral parts to be filled in after a brief rehearsal with elders and youth from each tour site. Beyond that, everything remains an open question. If the play is to be written by these communities and not by their guests, Larissa can’t just dream it up in the privacy of her own mind and laptop, the way playwrights usually do. This project isn’t about her imagination, personal interests, or concerns.

“It’s not just me,” Larissa explains. “The people here are trusting this whole team of people they’ve never met, who’ve never been in the state on Lakota lands. And Dakota. And Nakota.” She includes herself. “I don’t live here. I’ve lived in California for a long time. I still come in as a guest. I love this place, and I love these people, and it’s my home. And you don’t want people to mess up your home. The other artists get to leave. I need to be able to come back.”

In the summer of 2021 Larissa won’t even speculate on what she will write. Because of the COVID pandemic, this is her first extended visit since December 2019. She feels she hasn’t heard enough. It is “too soon to lock that in, to make those sort of assumptions for the community. It’d be fixing it in some part of my brain.”

More radically, given the artistic and legal energy playwrights exert to retain control of their scripts, Larissa will, through public readings of subsequent drafts, give community members veto power over every word and action in the play, an editorial process that will occur in late 2022 and early ’23 across the state. (Given the sensitive nature of being an urban, white observer on this process, I have—full disclosure—emulated this practice and run a draft of these articles by the Wicoun company and some community partners, selected and circulated by Cornerstone staff to make sure I have represented things accurately.)

When I join them in August 2021, we COVID test every day before meeting with locals. Protecting host communities from disease is particularly fraught in this context. For one thing, infection rates are high on the reservations. (Despite high Native COVID rates across the country, vaccination statistics in South Dakota Native communities remain unclear.) One cause of a recent surge: the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a gathering of half a million bikers from across the country in a state with under a million citizens. In 2020, Sturgis quadruples the population of Rapid City, and turns the rally into a super-spreader event.

There are COVID checkpoints at some rez borders. “They are under siege again,” Larissa says. Her comment comes loaded with the history of centuries—especially the 17th and 18th—when Native populations were wiped out by previously unknown diseases brought by white European settlers, some unintentional and some murderously on purpose. Suicide rates in Native nations also rise during lockdown to twice those of the general population. It’s not unusual for cars to pull over on the reservation highways to let funeral processions go by.

Against this backdrop, the Cornerstone guests in these lands proceed with care. The next scheduled engagement trip, October 2021, is canceled when the Delta variant spikes.

Stuck

Summer 2022

At the heart of this story: things that make no sense.

A different kind of engagement: Michael is about to be married. After three intensive visits to South Dakota—March, June, and August—he’ll head to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in September for the big event. Before that he’s in Norristown, Pa., rehearsing a play he’s written for Theatre Horizon called Town, the culmination of a two-year, “Cornerstone-esque” project directed by Nell Bang-Jensen and featuring 50 actors.

Meanwhile, Larissa, in L.A., is trying to make sense of something they have heard in every story circle since 2019. She doesn’t want to bug her director, especially while he’s being the playwright on something else. But he understands something she can’t, and she needs to keep writing. Guiltily—she even feels guilty recounting it a year later—she starts “whisper texting” him.

Community engagement can be tricky for a playwright; the play you’re asked to write might not be one you know how to write. As various members of the Cornerstone ensemble, board, and staff have traversed much of the state, holding workshops and story circles with youth, adults, and elders in the D/N/Lakota nations, they’ve asked what people want to see, what kind of play they want. They hear one request over and over, from people of all ages: They want to see superheroes. Superheroes superheroes superheroes. The problem is, Larissa doesn’t do superheroes. She doesn’t get them. Doesn’t even like them. “I’m not a superhero person,” she admits. “At every single story circle someone brought up superheroes. It got the point where Michael and I would just give each other the look. ‘Okay…?’”

Larissa had been wrestling with superheroes all along. She and Michael discussed it on an earlier trip, driving up from Lower Brule through the Fort Pierre National Grassland along the Missouri River. The grasslands, a federal attempt to recreate the prairie as it was when wild, provide habitat for prairie chickens, grouse, pheasant, and an array of wildlife, including black-tail prairie dogs, badgers, coyotes, and antelope. Larissa and Michael didn’t dwell on the natural landscape as they drove, but on the nature of superheroes. What kind of superpowers could they treat theatrically? Michael remembers them brainstorming “a very rough-magic theatricality that could be overt and seen by the audience. It would be playful, but we didn’t have to limit ourselves.” They might use puppets, which allow for characters to fly through the air, or stage a scene where one character’s normal movements—in contrast to the others’ lugubrious slow-motion—creates a sense of hyper speed. They would find ways that different powers could be, according to Michael, “fun, intelligible, and have their own kind of magic.”

Larissa first tried her hand at short superhero plays during a number of youth development workshops and camps they’d led as part of the engagement process leading up to the moment she needed to write the final piece. Just two months before she begins guiltily bugging her director by text, she wrote one with and for about 10 kids at Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte. This brief Superhero Story featured two magical beings, Osiceca (Storm) and Wanahca (Flower Girl), whose superpower is to make flowers bigger, along with the original Native trickster Iktomi or, as Iktomi Wičháša, the original Spiderman. Together this trio attends a demolition derby and fights and conquers Godzilla, sending him, defeated, stomping off into the prairie.

superhero story cheyenne river youth project
The cast of a project at Water Lilly Insitute at Ihanktonwan Dakota Nation, in which Larissa FastHorse’s script involved Superman showing up at a powwow.

That project also marked an early collaboration with Talon Bazille Ducheneaux, a Dakota/Lakota rapper/DJ/sound designer and member of the Cheyenne River and Crow Creek Sioux tribes. (Talon will score Wicoun.) For Superhero Story, he had the children create sounds with their bodies and voices that he sampled—along with Godzilla’s roar and the sounds of racing cars—for a soundtrack.

The ensemble followed the progress of engagement through daily reports Cornerstone members took turns posting to keep the company informed about the work on the road. What you couldn’t read about in these reports, however, was the writer’s state of mind as she attempted to make artistic sense of it all. Larissa wrote these brief plays with magical heroes for Lakota youth; she riffed with Michael about superpowers and heard from hundreds of people in dozens of communities; she printed and read every note from every meeting—“all the talks, all the years”— and put them together in “one massive document.”

But now that it’s time to write the real play, she can’t do it. She still doesn’t understand superheroes. She can’t “find any way into it personally.” And so the panicked, guilty texting begins. “I was like, ‘Explain it to me. What is it? Why does everyone keep saying this?!?’”

While Michael gets married, Larissa finds one answer in the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once. “That broke it open for me,” she says. “Okay, now I get it. I can do this. That’s where I saw it doesn’t have to be about good and evil.” In an Oscar-winning performance by Michelle Yeoh, the movie’s heroine, Evelyn Quan Wang, under IRS audit, gets drawn into battle with a powerful being bent on destroying the multiverse. As Larissa understood it, however, events play out within Evelyn’s family itself. She’s “very much tied to her family and her real relationships,” Larissa explains. Her husband and daughter get sucked out of the real world and into the superhero realm with her. The world shifts, but these relationships stay central.

Another lightbulb flips on when she remembers the only other superhero movie she’d liked: Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins’s 2017 film, starring Gal Gadot. “Because it’s like, her power is compassion! That’s incredible! They’re also both female-centered.”

A lifetime comic book aficionado, first as a boy, then as the father of one, Michael adds context: “Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t a revenge fantasy. I loved those kind of comic books, and then at a certain point in my early adulthood, I was done with them. I didn’t buy this whole revenge fantasy thing—this projection of power that’s very important for a lot of adolescent male psyches. But finding a comic that is halfway between the superhero coming into one’s power and using it to overcome at the same time, not being just a revenge or good vs. evil savior fantasy—I think that was really helpful for Larissa.”

Another thing Larissa and Michael keep hearing in story circles over the months that become years: concern about LGBTQ youth, particularly trans youth. Young people speak about this urgently, but adults bring it up too. “Sometimes surprising adults,” Michael adds. They want to address these concerns, but aren’t sure how to represent youth voices given, as Michael explains, they doubt they’ll be able to take young people on tour with the show. They hope to find another way to involve youth—including many they’ve met through camps and workshops—in the final production. They originally plan to do this through local audience interaction. Young folks in the audience might play a specific role, for instance, or be coached into action as part of the show. The team hopes the pandemic will continue to recede enough for large-scale, maybe even choral participation, rehearsed or led at each site just before the performance, possibly involving elders as well.

This is consistent with both of their previous Native plays. In Urban Rez, the first play of the trilogy, audiences moved from place to place, thrown into whatever was happening, often choosing their own adventure amid a lot of simultaneous action. According to Michael, the L.A. Native communities had asked Cornerstone “to create a thing where the audience, in particular the non-Indigenous people, felt what it was to not be part of the narrative and to feel unsure where to go, the way Native people there have often been made to feel displaced.” It was, as Cornerstone dubbed it in promotional materials, “a hotbed of chaos.”

In contrast to that disorienting immersion, Native Nation stressed the participatory power of the more cohesive and politically active Indigenous population of Arizona, where the Native tribes are, in Larissa’s words, “many and so strong.” There the audience was divided in four groups that circulated among different stages where they could learn about and engage with issues affecting Native communities: the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, water rights, blood quantum, missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), and “a host of community concerns that manifested from our conversations for the two or three years leading up to the April 2019 performance,” according to Rosetta Badhand-Walker, a community actor who brought her activism on behalf of MMIW to the play. A strong advocate for Native electoral participation, Rosetta also had a side table to register voters. Native Nation—arguably the largest Indigenous theatrical experience in the history of American professional nonprofit theatre, with, in Rosetta’s words, “a cast of 40 and a full-blown production crew that brought semi trucks full of equipment from L.A.”—meant business.

August 2021 & 2022

At the heart of this story: things that go disastrously wrong.

Milks Camp, a community at the very edge of Rosebud, is the site of Lakota Youth Development (LYD), the realized vision of a real-life superhero named Marla Bull Bear more than 30 years ago. LYD addresses such problems as teen suicide, substance abuse, and violence by teaching youth Wolakota (Lakota way of life), focusing on the 12 Lakota virtues: compassion, perseverance, sacrifice, fortitude, generosity, wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honor, humility, and truth. Marla, the executive director, works alongside a small staff that includes, as facilities manager, her husband Charles Bull Bear, a former police officer and ranger for Rosebud, and a board, whose president is Joseph Marshall III, author of The Lakota Way and many other books.

Larissa has been involved with LYD for many years, and she and Michael have returned several times for workshops with the youth there. Cornerstone previously led a summer camp there, in the summer of ’21, which I had the privilege of participating in.

Cornerstone approaches all of its relations thoughtfully, aware that what holds for one community won’t apply in another. Work with Native children requires extraordinary care to build trust, especially when it’s led by white or white-presenting folks and strangers to their community. Cornerstone members are practiced at this care and have been trained in working with traumatized populations. They talk through all workshop ideas with Marla.

Among the important context they gather along the way: More than four in five American Indian women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime, more than 90 percent of that interracial, i.e. perpetrated by non-Native people. More than half of all Native American women (56 percent) have experienced sexual violence, 96 percent at the hands of non-Native perpetrators, according to CDC reports. Against this background of violence and the centuries-old history of aggression, genocide, and displacement, Native children experience post-traumatic stress at the same rates as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan—i.e., triple the rate of the general population.

Given all this, LYD’s teachers and camp elders insist on very specific care. Marla makes sure that all lesson plans are tied to Lakota culture. In preparation for the campers’ arrival in August 2021, the Cornerstone crew—by then we’re joined by Peter Howard and another longtime ensemble member, lighting designer Geoff Korf—discuss every detail with her, from cultural customs around eye contact and shaking hands to the way play-devising prompts should be phrased: Talk about “words” and “pictures,” rather than “writing” and “drawing.” “Tell the story of your names” is a formulation that takes time and trust; it should be replaced with “one fun fact about your name.” Cut “I like to watch movies,” as some kids don’t have access to them.

In the summer of 2021, I find it profoundly moving to see six young campers, 10 to 15 years of age, begin the week hidden deep inside their hoodies and then, over only a few days, blossom. They light up playing theatre games like Indigenous Zip Zap Zop and Sweeping the Tipi, led by Kenny and Peter. They respond creatively to bonfire stories told by camp elder Joseph Kills Small and art projects with Lakota artist Mike Marshall.

A year later, in early August 2022, before Michael’s Pennsylvania play and Vineyard wedding, before Larissa’s writing panic and breakthrough, a group of 15 campers, having completed another full week of camp, join to celebrate a successful staged reading of another new play, Our History Is Our Future, which weaves together ideas and contributions from every kid at camp. Spirits are high. Peter wakes up early and joins Marla and two sleepy campers for the sunrise morning song, with which they greet the day. They walk up the hill to “marvel at the light,” as Peter later writes, from the new sun, clouds, and a rainbow. They plan to hold a follow-up presentation of the play in the morning, and the campers show up at breakfast in COVID masks and Lakota Youth Development T-shirts, which double as costumes. As the rain grows heavy, they “roll gamely with the news” that the encore performance will be canceled. They pack their things and prepare to de-camp.

Peter gathers up Lynn and Nephelie’s tools and consolidates craft materials they will leave for future work at LYD, including “a large cotton tarp, cut and grommeted to fit the backdrop of the outdoor stage.” They leave paint and brushes to paint it with, and a new light source in the popcorn concession shed, which they hope will be a puppet booth next summer. (The campers all want to make and work with puppets.) Meanwhile, Larissa holds a closing session with the youth, and they list things they’re taking away from camp, including:

Speak clearly with voice so people can hear you.

You should come to theatre camp because it’s inspiring. And helps you learn about theatre.

Writing scripts.

Inspires you to speak louder in front of crowds of people.

Food. Well-nourished and healthy.

Theatre camp helps social skill.

Creativity.

In the process of recounting the learnings from camp, Larissa and Marla realize they haven’t clearly communicated that working in the theatre is an actual job—that people get paid for it. As Larissa reports, “It was mind-blowing to them. Lots of actual dropped jaws.” Marla polls the kids about which jobs they would want, and designers come out No. 1, with a couple votes for acting, writing, stage management—none for directing. Larissa concludes that being in charge might be “intimidating for them.”

In the next hours, though, the week’s affirmations give way to a different kind of positive. For all their care, some things are out of everyone’s control. COVID hits the fan. The company’s daily reports, usually precise and full of local color, break down. Peter Howard files his Aug. 4 report five days after the fact, referring to a brief Aug. 5 report by community advisor Clementine (Minnie) Bordeaux. Clementine, a collaborator on Wicoun and CTC board member, is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, raised on Pine Ridge, who, along with her family, has been instrumental in providing support and connection throughout the state, even while completing a PhD in Culture and Performance at UCLA. (Clementine will receive the doctorate during Wicoun’s tour.) Larissa weighs in a week later with a pre-dated report, followed by another on Aug. 12, after a Paxlovid-induced night of insomnia. She refers to Clementine as “the last of us COVID virgins to test positive,” in what veteran ensemble member Lynn Jeffries will later call “the Milks Camp fiasco.”

Lynn, Nephelie, Larissa, and Clementine all have COVID. Reports follow from LYD of folks, young and old, including visionary Marla, testing positive. Michael remembers: “Our group brought it with us, and it was really hard.” The COVID spread spared no group. “Elders, babies, the whole community. It was devastating. It had a huge emotional, psychological, and practical impact on the work and on us.”

lynn jeffries nephelie adonyadis
Lynn Jeffries and Nephelie Adonyadis at Milks Camp.

A similar camp scheduled for the following week at the Yankton reservation is canceled; with school about to start, the risk of exposure is too high. The company divides. Lynn isolates in a hotel, Nephelie in an Airbnb, while COVID-free Kenny goes to Rapid City with Clementine, where they quarantine, separated by two floors.

Michael and Peter, who stay virus-free and act as gofers for their nearby colleagues, rent an Airbnb in Sioux Falls with Larissa. “COVID House,” as she calls it, has big windows to open and ceiling fans for the warm summer nights. With asthma and another autoimmune disease, Larissa starts taking Paxlovid 48 hours later. When she wakes at 9 p.m. with a fever and high heart rate, struggling to breathe, she’s glad to have taken it. She considers herself a “poor patient,” and is especially grateful for Peter and Michael’s care. Clementine dubs them the GOATS of the trip, as they traverse the Covid bubbles, pharmacies, and shops. They deliver food and books, drive their colleagues to doctors and hospitals, and take distanced walks with their patients.

“Every day I was getting a call about a new person who tested positive,” Michael recalls. “We just sat in Sioux Falls, couldn’t leave. It was really emotionally rough. We had tested like crazy before. We became the problem nonetheless, and the price is high most importantly in how it impacts the community.”

Eight days later the threesome from COVID House test negative and head to Pipestone, Minn., a national monument of breathtaking “beauty and variety and history and power and peace,” as Larissa describes it. It’s her last Paxlovid day, and she’s exhausted, having done nothing all week, so she naps on some large rocks, while Michael and Peter hike around. “If this is how I end,” she tells the guys, “let people know I ended in a good way at a good place.” Later that day they have dinner and ice cream outdoors with Lynn, who is feeling better but still testing positive.

The impact of that week remains hard for each of them to express: “Scary, sad, exhausting, boring, beautiful, restful, monotonous, bonding, etc.,” Larissa writes to the full company. The outbreak overturns their plans for the production to come. Everything must change: the shape of the production, scale of the tour, the play itself, and of course, the design. Any ideas of immersion get scrapped. They will, instead, create the most intimate show of the trilogy: eight actors, presentational style, no community chorus, no audience participation.

“After the Milks Camp COVID fiasco, we completely rethought everything,” puppet designer Lynn Jeffries explains. “Michael and Larissa felt that now, even though COVID is definitely improving, we did not want to be having much contact with people. So they reconceived how the set was going to be so that there was more distance between audience and performers. We totally eliminated having local cast members at each venue, and would just have a small group of people who would travel together.”

In the next installment: A troubled Lakota trans youth becomes a superhero.

Todd London (he/him) is a former managing editor of American Theatre and the author of numerous books on the theatre, including This Is Not My Memoir with Andre Gregory, An Ideal Theater, Outrageous Fortune, The Importance of Staying Earnest, and The Artistic Home, as well as two novels, If You See Him, Let Me Know and The World’s Room. A long-term artistic director of New York’s New Dramatists, he won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and was the first recipient of Theatre Communications Group’s Visionary Leadership Award.

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