May 6, 2011
Playwright Saito connects American dispossessions a century apart in 'Landless' May 7
The scene is a dusty, desolate road in the "boot heel" of southeastern Missouri. On the road is a line of weary, dispossessed people with all their worldly possessions. Are they Cherokee from the Southeast, on the Trail of Tears march to Oklahoma in the 1830s? Are they evicted Depression-era sharecroppers a century later?
In "Landless," by Iowa Playwrights Workshop student Andrew Saito, they are both, connected across the gap of a century by both the location and a grieving woman who must travel back in time to learn how to live in the present. "Landless" will be performed at 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday, May 7, in the David Thayer Theater of the University of Iowa Theatre Building as the final production in the 2011 Iowa New Play Festival.
The grandson of Japanese, Irish and Austro-Hungarian immigrants, Saito has been a fellow of the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, worked with Zapotec communities in Mexico and Mayan youth in Guatemala, and collaborated with Andean theatre company Kusiwasi on a play about climate change.
A finalist for a Princess Grace Playwriting Award and a Fulbright Fellowship, he has worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Asian American Theatre Company and the Peruvian collective Yuyachkani. Much of his recent experience has focused on ethnic minorities, dying languages and the accompanying political and personal issues of land, power and roots.
But Saito said his sensitivity to these issues began in his childhood, before being focused and broadened as he grew up. "Ever since I was a little kid, I had an awareness of the history of this country -- then it was much more vague, of course -- but basically the theft of the Americas."
The awareness of dispossession was an immediate part of his family history -- his great grandparents were forced into an internment camp during World War II, an experience that collectively led Japanese-Americans to assimilate rapidly after the war. "I view my past in terms of my disconnect with my ancestral languages and my roots," he says, noting that neither he nor his parents speak Japanese. "The likely future of many indigenous communities seems similar to the recent past of my family, in terms of being cut off from who you are."
The Trail of Tears -- during which Native American tribes from the Southeast were forcibly relocated to the Indian Territory that became Oklahoma, so that their land could be incorporated into cotton plantations -- is a natural fit for those concerns, but Saito said he did not set out to write a play about the Trail of Tears.
"It seemed to be that it was such a commonly referenced event, but then when I researched I realized I had no idea what it was," he said. "The genesis of the play was in a class with Naomi Wallace (Playwrights Workshop alumna who was back as a guest of the department) in 2008. I found these photos -- there was no information -- but I was fascinated by the composition, the theatrical possibilities, all these people on the road."
The subject of the photos turned out to be sharecroppers evicted from their cotton fields in 1939, assembled to protest before they were driven off the road by law enforcement. "Originally the play was going to be about these sharecroppers -- mainly black but also white -- being evicted and their stance against it.
"But Professor Sydne Mahone had a seminar on diversity and ethnicity, and she showed a video of eight men -- two whites, two blacks, two Asians and two Latinos -- talking about race. This was in northern California, and there were references to Native Americans who lived in the area, but there were no Native Americans in the group. And that really pissed me off. I got vocally upset about it, and she encouraged me to pursue this in my writing."
The threads came together when Saito set out to investigate what native people lived in the Missouri boot-heel between the Mississippi and St. Francis Rivers, the location of the sharecropper photos. He discovered that routes of the Trail of Tears went through the same area in late December 1838. The two events were separated by almost exactly 100 years -- a bit of natural, poetic theatricality -- so what was left was to connect them dramatically.
Saito found that connection in a young Afro-Cherokee woman known as Six, because she is thought to carry with her the spirits of her five family members who perished in a fire. On that desolate, dusty road in Missouri, contemplating suicide, she encounters both groups of the landless, and their experience of dispossession helps her to recognize and reclaim her own identity.
Tickets for "Landless" are $5 for the general public, and free for UI students with a valid UI ID. Tickets will be on sale one hour before each of the performances. Tickets are also on sale noon to 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Theatre Building box office. More information can be found at http://bit.ly/newplay.
The Iowa Playwrights Workshop -— the UI MFA Program in Playwriting -— is an intensive three-year program dedicated to educating playwrights for the professional theatre. The objective of the program is to train talented playwrights and collaborative theatre artists who will lead the American theater in the creation of new works and the training of future generations of playwrights.
The Iowa New Play Festival began in the 1960s as Critics Week and developed into the more public Iowa Playwrights Festival. The festival's name was changed to the Iowa New Play Festival to stress that the production of new plays was of educational value not only to the playwrights but to all students in the department. Learn more about this year's festival at http://www.news-releases.uiowa.edu/2011/April/042011new_play_festival.html.
Over the years, the festival has produced scripts by numerous young playwrights who have gone on to distinguished careers in theater, and many of the plays developed through the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and presented in the festival have gone on to successful professional productions, have been honored with theatrical awards or have been invited to theater festivals.
This year's festival is dedicated to Cosmo Catalano, who died in January. He joined the UI Department of Theatre Arts in 1966 and was professor in charge of acting and directing, department chair and managing director of Iowa Summer Rep. Catalano directed more than 100 productions for the department. His numerous contributions to the community are detailed here: http://performingarts.uiowa.edu/ui-mourns-loss-of-cosmo-catalano/
The Department of Theatre Arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
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