Indigenous artist, mother, wife, poet, playwright, (American Indian Resource Center) AIRC director, and teacher are just a few hats that Carolyn Dunn wears throughout the day. “Ghost Dance,” a play written by Dunn and directed by Katie Ventura, will be performed this Thursday and Friday at the Stevenson Event Center.
CHP: Where did the inspiration for “Ghost Dance” come from?
Dunn: Nearly 20 years ago, a friend, and I were just talking about how the Indian world views time, and how the non-Indian world views time, and looking at how it seems like everything is so immediate in the non-Indian world. Like, if someone has a prophecy or if someone has a vision about the end of the world, it’s going to happen, and it’s going to occur exactly as the vision happened.
CHP: How would explain the story of “Ghost Dance”?
Dunn: “Ghost Dance” was, and is, a still practiced ceremony that originated from a vision of a Pauite man named Wovoka. It is a ceremony in which people were to participate in a dance that went on for four days and four nights. The interpretation of it was if the people danced this dance and performed this ceremony, then the ancestors would come back and run all the white people out of the land and then all things would return to the traditional Indian way, and so this prophecy took off across Indian country during the time in the 1890s.
CHP: The story is based on true events, what elements are more factual and which are more fictional?
Dunn: I based the protagonist on a historical character from my tribe, the Creek Nation, Alexander Pose. He was a very traditional Creek who spoke the language and grew up among the traditional people who went to college and became educated. It’s still a very modern play even though it’s a play based on historical events. It’s not an “am I Indian or am I white?” play, which is a lot of what contemporary native theater seems to be about, but it’s more about “Who am I when I don’t have my nation? Who do I become when I lose my land? Who do I become when I’m away from my people?” So what it’s really about is diaspora.
CHP: Have you been working closely with Katie Ventura? What has production been like?
Dunn: I adore Katie Ventura and Carlos Joaquin. I’m amazed at what Katie has done in terms of the staging of the play, I think her vision of this piece is amazing and I hope to incorporate that into the script at some point. I have really been taken aback by the level of deep thinking the students have really come across with this piece. There’s only a couple of people in the cast that are American Indian, but a lot of them have an indigenous background so it has really affected them in ways that they’re really thinking deeply about the subject matter and what a struggle it is to be a person of color in this country. Even though it’s a historical piece it really speaks to them.
CHP: What is the most important message you hope gets across to the audience?
Dunn: That native people, and I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but that fact that we’ve been through a genocide, we’ve come out on the other end of it, and no matter how hard the federal government systemically tries to destroy our families, our tribes, our communities, our people that were still alive. We continue to survive because we still have our stories and we still have our language even though language is in danger. We still have that indigenous knowledge, the indigenous epistemology that is not going away and that could not be destroyed. We’re entering into a new phase of an Indian country.
CHP: How long did it take you to write “Ghost Dance”?
Dunn: I see it as an ongoing process. I first published it as a poem in 1993, then I wrote the play from my MFA at USC in the 2004, and it’s been workshopped a couple times with Native Voices at the Autry and Los Angeles Theater Project. This play is really close to my heart and I think a lot of native people who hear it or see it are really affected by it. I’ve had the actors who have done the readings and are really affected by it and causes them to think deeply about their own crisis of identity that they’ve gone through in the past.
What do you feel is the most effective form of bringing awareness to under- represented cultural groups like Native Americans?
Theater and art. Art is activism. It’s a way to use our creative processes to engage in dialogue with others. Theater is ceremony and ceremony is theater, it’s ritual and we go through rituals in order to enter into that sacred space and I think that performance is an effective tool to engage people in a conversation they normally do not engage in.
The play will take place at UC Santa Cruz, Stevenson Event Center, May 10 and 11. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., shows will begin promptly at 7 p.m.
Ticket prices for all showings of this production will be free. Students, seniors, children and general admission included.
The Stevenson Event Center is located at 101 McLaughlin Dr.