As part of its 61st season, The Guthrie Theater has premiered a play spotlighting the Twin Cities Native American community. For members of the community, it’s an exciting moment.
“I'm still processing it, quite frankly,” said comedian and nonprofit organizer Trish Cook about “For the People,” now playing.
“Folks are really buzzing about it.”
Cook, who is Anishinaabe and lives in St. Paul, has seen the show multiple times.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
“I think it kind of gives non-Natives maybe just a little peek into our communities,” Cook said, praising the show for showcasing the diversity of Minnesota’s Indigenous community.
“For the People” was written by Larissa FastHorse and Ty Defoe. The show first began as an idea in 2019, when the Guthrie approached FastHorse and Defoe to create a show.
“We ended up centering on Franklin Avenue, which is a very well-known, well-beloved avenue,” FastHorse said. Franklin Avenue was the birthplace of the American Indian Movement and remains a hub of Native American arts, culture and activism.
FastHorse, who hails from the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and Defoe, with both Oneida and Ojibwe heritage, decided to crowdsource the story directly from the community they intended to portray in their show.
Defoe recalls hosting events during the harsh Minnesota winter of 2019 to gather stories and feedback for the writing.
“We talked to so many different people, just asking questions in a gathering-like phase,” Defoe recalled. They visited people up and down Franklin Avenue.
“We even went to powwows that were a little bit off of Franklin Avenue.”
By 2021, the show started to take form. “For the People” follows April Dakota, a Native woman who returns to Minneapolis after time spent away seeing the world, intending to open a Wellness Center.
April quickly becomes entangled in the avenue's politics, navigating challenges like grant funding, gentrification and questions about her “Native” authenticity. Although FastHorse and Defoe had different upbringings, they both relate to April's journey to understand her Native identity.
“[I’m from] the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota and I grew up being adopted out very young, to a white family,” FastHorse said.
“I had to go through a kind of a reclaiming of culture. As I was growing up in my late teens ... now, I call myself a bridge.”
Defoe grew up with lots of connections to his Anishinaabe heritage and grew up speaking Anishinaabe.
“There was a journey about how to figure out how to belong and what belonging meant as like a modern-day Indigenous person,” Defoe said.
Aside from nationally known actors, like Wes Studi of “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” “For the People” includes notable local actors, including Ernest Briggs, artistic director of the Minnesota-based Turtle Theater Collective, which focuses on Native storytelling.
Another local actor, Adrienne Zimiga-January, plays a commissioner.
“She's kind of like the boss lady. She reminds me of a lot of strong female women in my head that I've had in my life, most particularly my aunt,” Zimiga-January said.
She points to other Native stories being told to a wider audience, like “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls,” as part of a large, empowering Native storytelling renaissance.
As a Lakota woman, “For the People” has a special place for her.
“To have a story like this, especially when you're right here on Native land. It is a huge thing for Native people here in the Twin Cities. For the Dakhóta Oyáte, it's huge here.”
The future of Native stories
According to the Guthrie, “For the People” is its first mainstage production written “by Native playwrights, featuring Native voices.” The theater’s commitment to Native stories found its recent momentum in the 2016-2017 season, when Defoe and FastHorse’s consulting company Indigenous Direction, was brought on to create a show in the Guthrie’s Dowling studio.
Later, the theater created a Native Advisory Council to consult on decisions being made about the shows they would program for future seasons.
“I know there have been efforts in the past to make this connection between the local Native community,” said Roya Taylor, a former member of the Guthrie’s Native Advisory Council and a local theater and voice-over artist. “But for some reason, you know, it just didn't seem like the timing was there or something was not right about the Guthrie's mindset.”
Though Taylor has yet to see the final product of “For the People,” she was previously involved with workshops for the show, long before it even had a title.
Taylor, an enrolled Pawnee and Choctaw, applauds the Guthrie's move toward Native storytelling as part of its future.
“What I would like to see is more Native young people, if we can figure out a way for them to take advantage of many of the educational offerings that the Guthrie utilizes,” said Taylor.
“We've had many years of creative, talented people that haven't gotten to share their voice, but they are now,” Cook shared, noting the bittersweet feeling.
“It's also exciting to hear from people — young folks and others who now want to share their stories or share their talents … I'm excited to see how it grows.”
“For the People” runs until Nov. 12.