THEATER | Juanita Blackhawk paints with “Red Ink”


I’ll say it plainly: there just isn’t enough Native American theater out there. Over the years, the History Theatre and the Penumbra Theatre have produced work by Marcie Rendon and other Native playwrights; now, Mixed Blood Theatre is making its contribution, commissioning and staging Red Ink, which opens today. It’s an anthology, officially billed as an American-Canadian International Indigenous Multi-Playwright Play, crafted by Rhiana Yazzie and including the work of Diane Glancy, Tomson Highway, Yvette Nolan, Darren Renville, Arigon Starr, Russ Tall Chief, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Rhiana Yazzie. Sarah Rasmussen directs.

Mixed Blood’s Web site describes the show thus: “Seven indigenous writers from nine North American First Nations explore gaming, sports mascots, sovereignty, and a host of Native issues in this ‘play-within-a-Pow Wow.’ With music, dance, storytelling and distinctive Indian humor, Red Ink creates a powerful portrait of a Native America that few know.” It should prove to be interesting and, of course, enlightening experience: Indian life conveyed by Indians.

Red Ink,” says Mixed Blood artistic director Jack Reuler, began three years ago. “Mixed Blood had been remiss, especially in recent years, in the presence of Native talent and literature on its stage. We set out to find already-scripted material and found that there were many good writers from which to choose. Rhiana Yazzie had just come to the Cities as a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center and the dialogue began that led to 13 people being commissioned, some for more than one piece, resulting in what we have.”

Juanita Blackhawk of Iluminadas Performing Arts (renowned for rendering the arts accessible to underserved Minnesota communities) will act in Red Ink. She’s been plying the trade since she was a kid. “At a very early age,” she recalls, “I just knew I would enjoy being on stage. I have always been an artist, whether it was drawing, painting, or beadwork. So acting was just another art form I took up.” In the sixth grade, the young Blackhawk auditioned for a school play and was chosen to portray one of the lead characters. Since then, she’s have been hooked on acting. “It took me many years after that first play,” she remembers, “to get the nerve to audition for any other plays—in fact, I haven’t really auditioned for any. While at Bemidji State University in 1993, I was asked to join the cast of The Rez Sisters, written by Tomson Highway.”

Blackhawk moved to the Twin Cities in 1998 and, while working at the Native American Journalists Association, was again drafted. Mark Anthony Rolo asked her star in his play The Way Down Story. In fact, Rolo rewrote the character from a grandfather to a grandmother so Blackhawk could be cast. Down the road, her sister, Marcie Rendon, got her interested in writing and artistic collaborations and inspired Juanita to start writing herself. She also performed in Indian Country Vagina Monologues (stories from women around the world who suffered sexual assault, domestic violence, and genital mutilation) for the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.

Ardie Medina’s play Stolen Generations was another instance where Juanita Blackhawk didn’t have to worry about auditioning. Medina simply handed her the role for a performance at the Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake, Minnesota. “This dealt with the forced-adoption era that so many Native families went through and the long-lasting effects it had,” says Blackhawk. It’s not by coincidence that she’s done a number of scripts that address intense themes. “I don’t consider myself a professional actress,” she says. “I become involved in order to spread a message about Native people: who we are, where we come from, and to educate the general public to the fact that we are all human beings who have similar life experiences.”

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.