Take Dante’s Inferno, add the Doctrine of Discovery, weave together personal and fictional narratives of racism in theater, and you have Don’t Feed The Indians, a play coming to Intermedia Arts this weekend.
Murielle Borst-Tarrant is the writer and director of this “divine comedy pageant.” A New Yorker from the Kuna tribe and Rappahannock Nations, she was brought up in the theater world by her mother, Muriel Miguel, a founding member of the Spiderwoman Theater in Brooklyn.
Borst-Tarrant initially began writing the play as a protest reactionary piece against Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a comedic rock musical about the founding of the Democratic Party. A human rights activist, Borst-Tarrant was also working at the United Nations on the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues at the time, and wanted to incorporate the Doctrine of Discovery (which claimed non-Christian Indians were inhuman and allowed government to claim their land) into the show as well.
Borst-Tarrant gathered five actors to share audition stories, and the racism they’d experienced in musical and comedic theater. “Being an Indian sometimes is hell,” someone said, which inspired the setting for the play. A pop-up book of Dante’s Inferno provided further structure to embrace that hell and inject humor and music into it. “I feel that comedy is an open door,” Borst-Tarrant says. “When you’re making fun of yourself, someone’s not making fun of you.”
Don’t Feed The Indians consists of scenes like a faux reality show of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas in family therapy, as well as personal and fictional narratives about the discrimination Native people face in theater, movies, and media. It was imperative that the cast and crew be Native because “it’s always been thrown at us that, ‘This story will never be told if you do not have a non-Native director, a non-Native lead who plays the Indian, and a non-Native writer,” Borst-Tarrant says.
The show also addresses the abundance of stereotypical Native, images like Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, offensive sports mascots, racist Halloween costumes, the Native American as “mystical being,” or that all Indigenous people are the same. “I’m a New York City Indian. So is my husband and my daughter,” Borst-Tarrant says. “It doesn’t mean we’re not connected to our land, our community, or our culture. There’s this big misconception, especially in New York City, that if you don’t live on a reservation, you don’t have a plight.”
Borst-Tarrant sees prejudice in the theater world as a reflection of the world at large, where racism against Native people is tolerated in a way it wouldn’t be if aimed at any other minority group. Ideally, she’d like to see plays such as this one function as a “training ground” for Native youth. She hopes non-Native audiences will learn something from the show and laugh with Indians, not at them. For Native theater-goers, she hopes the play will inspire action.
“I really want to empower our community,” she says. “That’s what this play is really about: telling Native people to scream out their windows and say, ‘I’m sick and tired and I don’t have to take this.’”
IF YOU GO:
Don’t Feed The Indians: A Divine Comedy Pageant
Fri., Nov. 20 – Sun., Nov. 22
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
$15-$18 (sliding scale on Friday)