What if two opposing governments within the United States determined variant geographical boundaries and what if both were technically correct? And what if you could witness a centuries’ long battle set in modern day but with a flavor just as authentic as pre-colonialism? So poses Native Voices’ production of “Stand-Off at HWY #37”, written by Vickie Ramirez and directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
I enter the Autry (across from Griffith Park’s Los Angeles Zoo) at five minutes to eight on a Friday night; the outer stone walkways aglow with base bulbs, trees winking and twinkling in white Christmas lights, sprawling terraces adorned with majestic, metallic statues from eras past; including a scene from an old Pony Express relay along with various other tableaus involving all manner of early Americana and otherwise equine intrigue.
The sense of modern/historical palpability is notable as I am reminded of nearly every rousing and momentous field trip ever taken since high school, only this space is much more lavish; like a place I could imagine having a wedding reception or bat mitzvah.
Ironically and coincidentally all at once (which I guess is kind of ironic in and of itself) the Autry theatre, though much more sturdy and cushy than most theatrical venues in L.A., reminds me a bit of a high school auditorium. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, (as long as sound carries adequately, which it does) it’s just been so long since I’ve seen a play in such a configuration, it is a bit of a surprise.
As I enter, there is a large, somewhat glowing treaty projected on to the ceiling and upper aerial Deus of the stage. It is fairly magical, again, hearkening me back to my museum field trip days. The set is rather enchanting complete with trees and grass (Astro-turf), stone walls and a highway sign. Sound effects of singing birds render the outdoor-meets-indoor tableau all the more halcyon and soulful.
That this stand-off takes place in such a lovely venue makes it all the more eerie and harrowing. The governments involved: The U.S. and Indian i.e. Native American involving the Iroquois, Cayuga and Mohawk. Set in upstate New York on the border of a small town and its local Haudenosaunee reservation, the dispute involves the expansion of Highway #37 and the, as yet, unsullied land surrounding it.
The story opens on the first morning of the face-off. Two National Guardsmen and their Captain, Donald Hewitt, played bull doggishly by Matt Kirkwood, monitor the area with guns. The deck is already stacked in an interesting direction when we discover one of the guardsman Thomas Lee Doxdater, played by Eagle Young, is Native American himself and known to two of the three protestors. Doxdater’s cohort Linda Baldwin portrayed strongly by Tinasha LaRaye adds a bit more texture to the push/pull gestalt of the stand-off drawing on her own African American descent to argue against and eventually and occasionally for the other side.
The introductory and major point of contention: imaginary lines and borders mandated by the U.S. government. The arrival of the protesters transpires quaintly enough, at first…for a few seconds…until the elder of the clan, Aunt Bev, played by a youthful but tranquilly feisty LaVonne Rae Andrews, refuses to move her chair behind the designated federal line. Arguing that she wants to have the best vantage point to see all ongoing activity, she has her cohort Darrin Jamieson, played flirtatiously by the goofy-sultry (yes, “goofy-sultry”: a new term I just coined) Kalani Queypo carry her chair front and center. The strapping young Darrin is only happy enough to oblige as one senses he also appreciates the opportunity to show off for the new object of his libidinal ego, Guardsman Baldwin with whom he flirts shamelessly and fruitlessly for the balance of the story.
(Oh and if you’re giggling because you think the chair is one o’ them namby pamby fold-out jobs, you’re misguidedly mistaken. It is full-on wood and fabric and, as I will joke frivolously to my guest later that evening, decidedly Archie-Bunkeresque…if Archie had had a somewhat more girlie chair as the fabric sports flowers and the wood is a little more delicately hewn. Even still, the parallel is not lost on me. Aunt Bev is just as obstinate as Archie Bunker ever was and, other than the fact that their character names sport the same initials, the comparisons stop there. Even still, the actuality that they have a magical three things in common is all I require for one rousing aside!)
Much of the play will take place with Aunt Bev center stage in her chair. She is tempered, peaceful, and more rational than the lot put together. There is contention as to whether or not she is an instigator set out to manipulate violence and chaos within the auspices of the protest. However, she maintains that the land in question is a bounty for all, if left untouched, and sticks steadfastly by her principles. This is much in contrast to her third young cohort Sandra Henhawk, portrayed by the forceful DeLanna Studi, who, after years of denying her Native American Heritage, has come back with a vengeance to salvage it, up to and including, inviting a headstrong reporter from the New York Times, Evelyn Lee played deliciously by Fran de Leon, to cover the demonstration.
Lee is put upon at first and laments minimal phone reception. As the launch of the protest is a little sparse she flees to get coffee but returns from the “Red Indian” (the indigenous people’s satirical namesake; apparently even “they have a sense of humor” according to Henhawk) with her similarly and cartoonishly emblazoned cup only to creep up upon the scoop of all scoops.
Up until now, the crux of the tension has been centered around Doxdater’s mission vs. Indian preservation as Doxdater, and Baldwin alike, will argue that the freeway extension is an indication of “progress; that the U.S. government is simply tending to the surrounding land. After all, it’s “just sitting there, getting overgrown” and no one’s really using it. Aunt Bev will argue the same thing; but that the Native People are tending to the land just fine adding that the fact that it’s getting overgrown and remains unpopulated is “progress”. If ever there was an argument so timeless, yet historically exact, this is it in all its authenticity and I can’t help but feeling, as I watch it, that no time has passed at all since the white man’s initial arrival on Native soil as a bit of a chill shoots straight up my spine…
Just as reporter Evelyn Lee re-enters with coffee, tensions come to an apex as Captain Hewitt has just returned only to find Aunt Bev in the same position, same chair, unmoved. As soon as Hewitt takes it upon himself to put his hands on the Elder’s chair, Doxdater, as though on primal instinct, raises his gun to his superior.
The question now remains: Will Doxdater go AWOL or stand trial?
The tensions in the play and some of the questions raised are quite arresting; and the interplay between the races certainly adds to the texture of the piece as Aunt Bev will remind everyone that, when it comes to groups’ comparative oppression, “it’s not a competition”. Do I think the reasoning behind Doxdater’s rash anti-authoritarian decision against his superior is a strong one? As to this, I am on the fence. Depending upon how I think of it, I could go either way, which I guess is kind of a namby pamby answer. So perhaps I have no business writing about it… But there you are… Regardless, it certainly makes me think and this, I can only assume, is a good thing!
As for the ending, I wasn’t too terribly bowled over and, in retrospect, would have liked to have seen a third and unforeseen possibility as an added element of surprise (barring any and all likelihood that this is based on completely and utterly true events and personages of course). All the same, I did enjoy the acting, direction, scenery, the subject matter and the dialogue!
“Stand-Off at Highway #37” runs at the Autry National Center through Sunday, March 16 with final performances:
Thursday, March 13, 8 pm
Friday March 14, 8 pm
Saturday March 15, 2 pm
Saturday March 15, 8 pm
Sunday March 16, 2 pm
and Sunday March 16, 8 pm.
The production is mounted at the:
Wells Fargo Theater
Autry National Center
4700 Western Heritage Way
Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462
For tickets and information please call or visit:
(323) 667-2000, ext. 299 or