THEATER | Reversing the gaze: Heid Erdrich’s “Curiosities”


Intermedia Arts concluded its remarkable Catalyst Series this weekend with a performance of Curiosities, a play written by Heid Erdrich and co-presented by Pangea World Theater. Like the other programs presented in this year’s Catalyst Series—such as Legacies of War, Words to Dead Lips, and Symptom, Curiosities was engaging and provocative.

Erdrich has called the process of creating the play “collaborative,” both in its writing, which involved the use of historical documents, and through the workshop and final rehearsal process with Pangea. After writing the play in 2005, it has undergone a number of workshops leading up to the full performance that took place at Intermedia last weekend.

The main historical document Erdrich used for the script came from the writings of Maungwudaus, also known as George Henry, who was an Anishinaabe interpretor and transator who led an Anishinaabe dance troupe on a tour throughout the United States and Europe. In 1848 he published a pamphlet titled An Account of the Chippewa Indians, who have been travelling among the Whites, in the United States, England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Belgium in 1848 which details his reminiscences about his travels and observations about the people and places he encountered.

Erdrich also drew from the journals of George Catlin, an American painter who sponsored Maungwudaus’s troupe for part of their journey. In the talkback session after Friday’s performance, Erdrich said that she eliminated the character of Catlin twice, bringing him back for this performance. Her decision to keep the character was helpful in adding a contextual layer to the play, and Landon Randolph was able to portray the character’s good intentions and problematic fascination with the “other.”

During the 1800s, Native Americans became the object of fascination for both Americans and especially Europeans. Like people of other races (such as Africans), they were displayed and gawked at. There are a couple of plays that look at this history from an African or African-American perspective—most notably Venus by Susan Lori Parks and the performance art installation Couple in the Cage created by Guellermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco, where they exhibited themselves in a cage around the United States, often confusing the audience who didn’t know whether the exhibition was a joke or not. Like the latter work, the actors in Curiosities performed a pre-show in the lobby of Intermedia Arts where they were displaying their ethnicity to the crowd as if they were part of a traveling show.

Erdrich’s script turns the acting of watching the other around with the help of Maungwudaus’s text. In his observations of the Europeans, he marked their idiosyncrasies, noting their difference from his own experience. “The only fault we saw of them,” he wrote in his pamphlet about the English, “are their too many unnecessary ceremonies while eating, such as allow me Sir, or Mrs. To put this into your plate. If you please Sir, thank you, you are very kind Sir, or Mrs. can I have to pleasure of helping you?” He then makes the observation: “Many of the Englishmen have very big stomachs, caused by drinking too much ale and porter. Those who drink wine and brandy, their noses look like ripe strawberries.”

In another scene, the troupe is taken to witness a public hanging, and Maungwudaus calls the executioners “murderers” and can’t understand why they would be taken to see it. 

Erdrich said that after she initially wrote the play, she asked Pangea for help leaving space for the artists to build it themselves. “The players brought so much to this process,” she said. 

Indeed the cast, which came from a wide range of experiences and performance levels, bridged the historical text into a contemporary oeuvre.  Although it became confusing at times as the play jumped around in time, the script skillfully makes the connection between the experience of Maungwudaus’s troupe and the contemporary Native American experience.

A couple of the actors really stood out. R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. was incredible as Maugwadaus. He brought an incredible energy to the role, capturing the wonder and curiosity, as well as the skill at storytelling that Maugwadaus must have had. Marisa Carr, too was lovely as his wife, and performed beautifully as a singer throughout the show. 

The one thing that didn’t work for this production was the set. There was a large square platform center stage, which was fine except that it left very little room on the sides of it. There were a couple of awkward blocking moments where the actors didn’t really have enough space to move.

In the post-show discussion on Friday, one audience member asked the actors if they found that as artists of color they had to sell themselves in order to get opportunities.

Armando Gutierrez, a visual artists, performer and storyteller who plays one of the troupe members, said that he has indeed experienced feeling that he had to put himself and his ethnicity on stage, especially during Latino Heritage month. It’s “integrity versus making a living,” he said.  “You have to commodify your culture somewhat.”

Dipankar Mukherjee, the director for the performance said a noted difference between what George Caitlin did in the 1840s is vastly different from artists of color today taking agency for their own work and politics. “For artists to do art,” he said, “is a birthright.”