Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Native American theater company ready to mark its footprint

Two Worlds is a Native American theater company dedicated to telling Native stories through performing arts.

Artistic director Kim Gleason said the inaugural festival is primarily about Native people reclaiming their own identity by representing themselves through a Native lens within the plays as actors and incorporating issues that are affecting Native people today.

“We want it to make sure that we understand that resources are important when it comes to New Mexico water and land,” Gleason said. “And we want to take in mind that the environment is pretty important to our Indigenous company going forward. Because performing arts to us is a healing ceremony.”

The festival will begin and end with a reception prayer along with stage readings, panel discussions and the theatrical plays at both the University of New Mexico’s Experimental Theatre and the Vortex Theatre.

Festival for Native American Theatre

Stage Reading of “Dancing with Fire” by Kim Delfina Gleason (Diné)

Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd NE.

$5+ suggested donation; 5 p.m. – 7 p.m.

The Rez Sisters

The Vortex Theater 2900 Carlisle Blvd NE

$19/$24, 7:30 p.m.

“Ribald, harrowing and mystical, this seminal work of Indigenous drama celebrates the spirit of resilience and the powerful beauty these women bring to the tough world in which they live.”

Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light

Experimental Theater, Univ. of New Mexico

$15 general, 7:30 p.m.

Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light by the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo is a story of challenges on the road to determination and healing using storytelling and ceremony.

The festival is premiering three plays: “Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light” by Joy Harjo (Muscogee), “The Rez Sisters” directed by Tomson Highway (Cree), and “Dancing with Fire” by Gleason (Diné).

Gleason says it’s important for artists to collect feedback from the community.

“When we put together a program, we ask questions like, ‘What can we do next? What have we done that our community hasn’t seen? And what would the audience like to see?’”

Gleason will have a screen reading of her self-written play “Dance With Fire,” that she wrote in 2015, the play takes place in the 1970s.

“It had to do with a Navajo family who lived on a reservation and was going through the Vietnam era. What it means to be drafted and what it was to live in that time,” she said.

Gleason said her inspiration for the play came from her mother’s life.

“It was like a celebratory moment because I wanted to share that matriarchal bravery that she had to overcome to be the person she was in her day. And she was a very good matriarchal figure to myself and my family.”

Another prominent figure for the festival is Lori Tapahonso, a Diné/Acoma actress currently serving as the President of the Board of Directors for Two Worlds.

Tapahonso said the push for a Native American theater festival is growing and hopes to see it evolve into a National Performing Arts Center for Native Americans in Albuquerque.

“So actually having an opportunity to create and make this a reality has kind of just emerged, and it was just serendipitous that it’s happening,” Tapahonso said.

She says this Native theater company can be a leader by forging paths that haven’t been created.

“And helping others in mainstream theater to understand just how incredible and how unique Native American theater is,” she said. “It’s something that we haven’t seen a lot of but we’re hoping we will see a lot more.”

Tapahonso helped build Native American theater companies in Oregon and New York. She says the momentum behind building strong and rich avenues for Native voices and creativity is there and it’s an untapped market.

“We are storytellers. It’s part of our DNA, to tell stories, to think in this creative manner. So creating avenues for that to come to life is exactly what Two Worlds wants to be part of to create,” she said.

Tapahonso is one of the seven actresses starring in “Rez Sister”, a play about a group of women with a dream of winning “the biggest bingo in the world.” To do so they must leave their Manitoulin Island reserve to the big city of Toronto.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been in a full fledged production,” said Tapahonso. “It’s healing and beautiful for us as actors to come in and take words on a page. Just to watch the transformation from a story to this beautiful visual and emotional experience.” 

She says getting to see how the audience reacts to the performance is also a benefit.

“It’s neat because Native theater is just so vastly different from any other kind of theater experience,” she said.

Tapahonso said Native actors are, “overlooked, because they don’t fit a certain mold, a certain visual representation that’s wanted,” when they audition for TV, film or theatre plays.

On top of working with Two Worlds, Gleason was hired by the University of New Mexico to teach a new, first of its kind class in the theater program,“Native American Storytelling in Drama”

‘Stop, and uplift each other’

As an alumnus of UNM’s Theatre Department, Gleason said she was honored to be the first Native American instructor teaching a theater class about Native American storytelling.

“I get to be one of the first people to share what Native storytelling is, and the students seem to be engaged,” she said. “They’ve been learning a lot about the producing side of Native theater and just learning what it takes to represent theatrical productions through a Native lens.”

Gleason said there’s more to it when it comes to telling Native stories.

“Understanding that telling your stories through honest and creative expression takes a lot of balancing of two worlds at the same time,” she said. Making sure that we protect our storytelling with great care, and not overstepping your boundaries with our elders and not sharing too much with the general public.”

She says that some stories need to be held in spaces not meant for the public. But that doesn’t mean Native Americans aren’t trying to provide a mainstream culture with a positive representation of Native people.

Gleason said one of the recurring themes in her class is the idea of identity of Native American people. She said non-Native people in performing arts tend to cast non-Native actors in roles made specifically for Native American actors.

To prevent this, Gleason said, “We need to advocate in performing arts, especially for Native storytelling. We need to do things for our people and by our people. Having Native writers, Native directors, Native actors, even Natives all the way down to the stage crew, is essential to having representation in the right way.”

“We have our own voice and we don’t need outside voices to tell us what we need to do to manage a Native American company. When it comes to decision making, it should be led through an Indigenous lens,” she said.



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