FREE SPEECH ZONE | “Ady”: Time travel through art and identity

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Finding one’s authentic self is a journey that can take you unexpected places and bring you full circle back home. Navajo playwright Rhiana Yazzie’s “Ady” travels through time from 1930s Paris to across 20th century Indigenous life in the American West, taking on surrealistic art, government boarding schools that Native American children were forced to attend for a century and complex identity. As with most Pangea World Theater’s productions, “Ady” is full of risk-taking, most of which pay off in full with drama and delight.

Adrienne (played by Avia Bushyhead) is a contemporary, Navajo young woman who finds a photograph of the mysterious Ady Fideline (played by Leah Nelson), a dancer from the Carribean island of Guadalupe who was lovers with the surrealistic photographer Man Ray from 1936 to 1941, when the couple was separated by WWII. Adrienne is wound tight within herself, awkwardly straddling her Indigenous culture and the white world; yet, even in a still photograph, Ady is confident in her body, smiles easily and communicates self-knowledge. Adrienne is stunned to realize that Ady’s face is a mirror likeness of her own.

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“Ady” is part a detective story of the imagination to find out who the intriguing woman in the photograph is and part an exploration of Adrienne’s Navajo, African-American and Italian-American ancestors. Bushyhead and Nelson play 18 characters spanning different ethnicities, both men and women.

Zimbabwe-born, Nelson imbues Ady with a magnificent joie de vivre. In an extraordinary feat of acting, Nelson renders a variety of other characters including Paris women who were both artists and muses Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington and Dora Maar (one of Pablo Picasso’s lovers), Adrienne’s African-American grandfather and even a moment as Picasso. After seeing Leah Nelson’s performance, I’m already impatient to see her next role.

Bushyhead is perfectly cast as Adrienne, communicating internalized emotions with nuance. Taking on the other roles, she’s sometimes less successful, but, she plays the Italian “Honky Grandma” to real comic effect and her “Indian Grandma” rings true.

Part of the core of “Ady” is looking at the idea of the artist’s Muse-—almost always a woman—and exploring that role’s possibilities and perils. In a sense, Ady becomes Adrienne’s Muse for claiming and coming to terms with her personal history—one that reflects the complicated history of America that current debates about racism show we still have not fully faced. Of particular poignancy is Adrienne’s relationship with her mother, who struggles with the scars of being abused in an Indian boarding school.

Today’s theater often feels compelled to utilize “multi-media” as if audiences saturated by a multitude of image-producing gadgets can’t hold their attention on a stage with actors. But, Pramila Vasudevan’s three screens of Man Ray’s photographs, 1930s historical photos of the Paris circle of artists by Roland Penrose and Carolyn Lee Anderson’s drawings really do add to the time-travel in the play. Jess West’s set with its hanging picture frames makes room for our minds to move all the amazing places Yazzie’s play takes us. Director Haley Finn had a lot of balls to keep in the air all and no doubt carried out Pangea’s collaborative ethic.

Yazzie’s writing is both poetic and real, dipping into surrealism to interconnect genealogy and a larger history. I’d suggest some slight editing of characters (such as Mick and Bianca Jagger) since there are moments where the intricate threads of her marvelous play get entangled and confuse. But, part of what’s so amazing about “Ady” is that such huge ambitions are almost completely realized. A bit of judicious cutting would only sharpen the play’s power.

From getting a unique perspective on the meanings of a handshake in different cultures to a fresh sense that nudity can express the liberated self, from glimpsing an intriguing chapter of 20th century art to seeing Indigenous identity in a fuller way, is groundbreaking.

There’s only three more performances left and you don’t want to miss”Ady”, a theater experience of marvels.

“Ady” written by Rhiana Yazzie
Fri.July 23-Sun.July 25, 7:30 pm
Playwright’s Center
2301 East Franklin, Minneapolis
$15