Art Talk with William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.
April 8, 2014
William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. Photo by Laurie Lambrecht
“Even working with a director that understands my work or understands the community, I've always had this problem of basically working through someone's misconceptions and stereotypes about Native people before we could actually work on my play.”—William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.
In the plays of William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., the past walks side by side with the present, the spirit world exists side by side with the seen one, and, most important, Native Americans live as complex multidimensional people, far from the one-size-fits-all stereotypes still prominent in popular culture. A member of the Assiniboine people and raised on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, Yellow Robe is the author of more than 40 one-act and full-length plays, many of which have been produced by companies such as Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, and the Public Theatre in New York, where that theater's Artistic Director Oskar Eustis dubbed him "one of the great American playwrights." Yellow Robe, trained as an actor and playwright at the University of Montana, has garnered honors including a Princess Grace Foundation Theater fellowship, the Playwright's Center Jerome Fellowship, and a Native Writers' Circle of the Americas First Nations Book Award for Prose. We spoke with him by phone about how his career as a playwright was triggered by playing hooky from school, the difficulties of finding and making work for Native playwrights and actors, and why, for him, writing is a responsibility not a career.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?
WILLIAM YELLOW ROBE, JR.: I think the earliest engagement was probably going to a celebration, or what is known as a pow-wow, with my family. It was there that I really had a chance to hear music and dance at a community level…. All my family members danced traditional dance so that was really a major impression on me, being raised with the music and the dance of my tribe.
NEA: And your road to becoming a professional playwright?
YELLOW ROBE: Once I started playwriting I couldn't stop. You know, this is not a profession where you make a salary (laughs), because I've done manual labor work in the past. I've been a janitor [and] I've worked at ANS Industries as a manual laborer… and it was difficult doing theater. But I think the most impressive thing about theater is that it takes a community for this art form to exist, and the most important thing, too, is that when I first started in drama at the University of Montana, we had a guest artist who came and asked the question, "Do you know that this is a profession where you don't make a lot of money, where you might actually live in poverty?" Later I told the guest lecturer that that didn't scare me because I was raised with poverty, so I'm not afraid of it. So I could endure this. So it was amazing that I never saw this art form as a means of career, but I've always viewed this art form as a means of creating community, of encouraging and enhancing community.
NEA: You said that once you started writing plays, you never wanted to stop. Do you remember the first time you wrote a play?
YELLOW ROBE: I wrote my first play when I was in sixth grade [as a school assignment]. I was really horrible as a student. I couldn't stay in school because basically, as a Native kid, it was hard for me to feel engaged in school, and everything that was being taught had nothing to offer about my culture; there was no reflection of my culture in the whole process, even though the school was established on Native land…. One day I decided to skip school, and I thought that I would hide out at my grandmother's house…. I had it all planned out that I would go there, I would pick weeds for her, maybe get a couple of quarters or a dime, and then go to the store and get some candy, and as soon as I walked in the door, there was my sixth grade teacher, sitting with my grandmother. I was busted.
Ironically, years later, when I had my first professional reading with the Native American Theatre Ensemble in L.A. with Hanay Geiogamah--this was back in 1985-1986, in December--I got an envelope in the mail one day and it contained the two plays I wrote for Ms. Dorothy Grose’s sixth-grade elementary class. The two plays were basically rip-offs of ABC movies…. I wrote my first play based on Cleopatra, the second one was based on Hercules and the twelve tasks.
NEA: What is the most challenging part of playwriting for you?
YELLOW ROBE: I think the most challenging part of it is clarity. I think one of the things that playwriting does do is that it makes you sharpen your ability to write. Because not only do you have the written word, but it also has to be translated by actors, directors, and designers, and then it goes through this osmosis where it's given to an audience. But what really makes it difficult is that I'm also writing to a generic audience. In other words, a lot of my audiences are not Native American. So when I choose a topic like "blood quantum" or "breeds" or "environment" and [I’m] coming from a Native perspective, I have to realize that non-Natives don't understand what I'm saying or what I'm talking about, [and] I have to make it accessible.
I used to tell students of playwriting, especially Native American students, "It's important that you tell your own story, and not worry about writing a book of sociology, history, or political science. It's going to be a given that your audience is not going to understand, but you should try to make some effort to make it accessible to them.” Because one of the things about theater, and the reason that I do theater, especially playwriting, [is that] to me it was the most peaceful form of communication; and it's also the most peaceful means of change without bloodshed.
NEA: As you’ve written plays over the years, what has surprised you most about the process?
YELLOW ROBE: What has surprised me most about the process is not having the resources [to write plays]. I've always been amazed reading American Theater Magazine, listening to other playwrights at different conferences [about how they write.] At one point… I didn't even have a typewriter. I was writing a lot of my plays by hand, by notes, by notebooks. Then the eventual aspect of actually writing the play, then getting a group of actors together and having them read it always amazed me because in doing my plays, there was always a difficulty in trying to find Native people who would be interested in doing a reading. Even at a professional level, traveling the country, going from theater company to theater [company], it was always difficult. People would say, "Well, we'd love to do your play, but we have no Indian actors, so we can't read it." So that was always the downside of it. That was a privilege I never had.
Ironically, I entered theater as an actor at the University of Montana. I used to audition for every role that came up, every project, whether it be a directing project, acting project. I would always audition, and one time a student director said, "Bill, you're a good actor, but we don't have any Indian roles for you." When I started writing my plays and started doing them at the University of Montana, I was told by my instructors, "Bill, it's a good play, but we have no Indian actors, we can't do it." So it's these simple things of having these privileges, having actors at your disposal, or at your fingertips, that you can call on [to] have them do a reading, or to do a production. But even working with a director that understands my work or understands the community, I've always had this problem of basically working through someone's misconceptions and stereotypes about Native people before we could actually work on my play.
What's always amazing to me too is that, being a Native person… some theaters are in this process of telling me what Native people are, what Native people look like, what Native people sound like, what the things are for Native people, and it's very frightening because it's sort of like Hollywood, in that Hollywood did that for centuries in dealing with Native people. And to see some theater companies taking that stance is very frightening.
NEA: You said that one of the responses that you received in college when you were trying to produce your plays was that there weren't any Native actors available. Do you think that landscape has changed any, and do you think there are ways to encourage more Native artists to go into the theater field?
YELLOW ROBE: I think change comes about through awareness. I think what has to happen is that people need to become more aware that there are basic elements that are missing in order for Native American theater to flourish. The first one in this Native American theater reality is that people have to recognize that there are no architectural structures that are designated specifically for Native theater. In other words, if you were to go into a city and say, "Can you show me the theater company for so-and-so, or this theater company?” you could easily point out a building or a facility which houses that theater. But if you were to ask the question, "Well, where do they do Native theater?" There's no building to point to…. There might be [some theater space] in some museum, or some gallery, or even some college might have a small building, but… in mainstream professional theater, there are no architectural structures that represent Native theater.
The second thing that has to become a reality is that a lot of non-Native theater companies, and organizations, have a lack of awareness of Native people and the issues. And so a lot of them are very afraid to engage that conversation because of their lack of awareness… or their own ignorance and arrogance. They don't want to engage that conversation. They see it as more of engaging a conflict than trying to address the possible solution to a problem. They would rather avoid the conflict and avoid any confrontation, which is really sad because in Native communities, there are a lot of positive notes that are not heard because of that fear.
The third element that's really bad is the identification of Native people. Most large, professional, non-Native theater companies can't even identify the Native communities in their area. Be it Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, a lot of theater companies are just oblivious as to the Native communities in their area. And there are a lot of Native communities across the country that are being denied access to [theater]. And so it's really tragic. But the other issue, too, which is really hard for a lot of people--it's hard within the Native communities--which is to identify who is a Native and who is not. In recent years, because there are funds for Native communities, Native arts, you have a lot of, as I call them, "grandchildren-come-lately…” who claim to be Native, but only claim to be Native to obtain funds. They have no identity, or a connection, or basically any linkage to any of the Native communities, and that's really tragic….
NEA: I want to shift focus to your own plays, which are deeply steeped in Native-American culture. What do you want your audience to take away from your plays?
YELLOW ROBE: What I'd like to have the audience come away with is that feeling that they've engaged in something, that they can come away either having a good laugh, or a good cry, but they've actually had an experience. And if I'm dealing with a specific [issue], maybe I've provided some sense of clarity, or provided an option to a problem, or even hinted at a possible solution to that conflict that they might be facing in their day-to-day lives. One of the things that really amazes me about theater is that it has a tremendous healing element. It can heal an individual, it can heal a community, but it has to be set up so that there's a sense of security, trust, respect, and patience. And you know, what's really the problem now is that, in my career with my plays, I've always been put in that position: am I doing it for community, or am I doing it for a career? And I've never seen my writing as a career; I've always seen it as a responsibility.
NEA: When you're working on your plays, what question do you think you're answering for yourself?
YELLOW ROBE: I think the most important question, what I feel is one of the major questions, is, how has my humanity grown? Because one of the things that happens within our society is that we become anesthetized. You have to understand in my personal life I have been sober now for over 25 years, and this is coming from a stance of being a chronic alcoholic, and also I experimented with drugs so I had a drug addiction as well. And during that time… after I sobered up [and was] going through the sobriety process--and I still do it every day--I had to examine what kind of human being have I become? And I have to reflect on my own humanity, because that's what separates me from all the other negative elements. If I can have a sense of my humanity, that my humanity is growing, and that it's broadened, then I've achieved something. So [playwriting] provides a means of reflection for me.
NEA: We just did an issue of NEA Arts in which we asked several artists to define what inspiration means to them. I’d like you to answer that same question.
YELLOW ROBE: Inspiration is when you finally realize there's something greater than yourself, and it touches your heart, it touches your soul, your mind, and [it] goes beyond everything else. It lifts you. It allows you to get through the degradation, the inhumanity, and makes you a better human being because now you want to help others and treat others in a respectful way. And I think that's what inspiration does for an artist… Inspiration makes you create because it's in your heart, it's in your soul, it's in your mind, it's in your body; and you find ways of finding a marriage with the environment around you, and you create.
NEA: Who are some playwrights and artists who inspire you?
YELLOW ROBE: Oh, there are so many! I have to go through this logically (laughs).... The first one I think is James Welch: he was a Blackfeet novelist that recently passed away tragically. But James wrote a novel called Winter In the Blood, which has now been made into an independent film, and James demonstrated that it can be done, for a Native person to reach above and reach out. That's the reason I've always admired Mr. James Welch. Also, Joy Harjo, a Native poet. She was the one that actually supported me earlier in my career, and helped me so much, and I owe a lot to her. Another individual who passed away not long ago is Lewis Owens, who wrote a lot of literature based on the blood quantum issue. He was a great Cherokee novelist.
For playwriting, the one that really inspired me the most was August Wilson…. and I appreciated what he tried to do, which was basically move people along, and ask that question of how this came to be. David Henry Hwang, his work, Luis Valdez, Suzan-Lori Parks also was a big impact on my life, Phillip Gan Kotanda, also Jose Rivera. There are so many of my age group, and then those around me. And then from classical theater I think Eugene O'Neill had a big impact on my life, and there were a lot of Greek tragedies and comedies I like, like Aristophanes, Euripides, and also Shakespeare. So I mean that's sort of the standard reading list… Also Hanay Geiogamah--his collection of one-act plays, New Native [American] Drama….was a big influence in my work.
Also, as far as an actor, one person who really doesn't get a lot of credit, but he did so much in American theater, is the late John Kauffman. John started as an actor, and started with the Red Earth Theatre Company in Seattle, Washington. He was also with the Seattle Children's Theatre, Empty Space Theatre in Seattle, and then his last position was the artistic director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth…. So there have been a lot of major influences -- even Spiderwoman [Theater] out of New York. Their shows were inspirational because they didn't go to the practical conventions. They were very much alive but at the same time very focused in their messages. But I think that the overall [inspiration for me] is August Wilson, because the one that really gets to me is The Piano Lesson, that play, I can understand a lot of that, and it's a lot of things that I can identify with. And there are moments there that I sort of identify with them because they remind me of family members. It’s a great play. In fact, one of my plays, A Stray Dog, is sort of influenced by August Wilson's Piano Lesson.
NEA: What is your advice to playwrights?
YELLOW ROBE: The best thing I could say, the best advice I can offer for younger people, is to stick to your story. Learn your stories. Learn to present your stories to the best of your abilities. And never change your stories because they might bring you commercial success. Always keep to the honesty and truth of your stories. But the most important thing, too, is that when you share your stories, they no longer become just yours, you share them with communities. And you have to be aware that sometimes there's negativity that you might receive, but don't let that hit you in your heart, and basically put you off from writing. Learn to take positive things from negativity and make it work for you. But again, I always tell young playwrights: this is a great profession for you to learn, because it's here where you're going to learn how to write your stories, and then to fight for your stories, to protect your stories, to nurture your stories, and once you're able to achieve that first play, then you start developing the techniques of a visceral approach, where you start trusting your instincts and inside of you, and you start listening to the spirits around you, those forces that are influential out there. They will help you… your answer is always there for you, but you have to be able to listen to them.
NEA: What does the phrase “Art works” evoke for you?
YELLOW ROBE: That's kind of a hard question, because we don't have the word "art" in our language. I remember teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and our late academic dean, Roger Buffalohead, had in a speech one time said that you have to remember for a lot of Native communities, a lot of Native tribes, the word "art" doesn't exist. Because art is everyday life; art is that element, that breath, of life itself. And so it's an everyday experience. It's nothing that can be hung up on a wall, or put on a pedestal on a corner with some lights around it. It's all around you. And it's an everyday process.
So if I were to say something like "art works," I would actually look more at respecting those elements around you that basically nurture your heart, your soul, and your humanity… Eventually, they help you create a humanity, and that's the reason why I think art not only works, but art breathes, it breathes, it gives you breath, it lives, and it's ongoing. Especially for an artist, it's an ongoing process, it never stops. I remember one time, to give you an example, my mother had passed away, and at her funeral she was the first Native woman in our community to have a pipe ceremony. And as I was sitting there in the pulpit, watching the pipe ceremony, I realized one thing: my mother is showing us again what it means to be Native, even in her death. She's showing us what it means to be Assiniboine, to be Nakota, and I thank her for that because that's also a part of art, because art will show us how to go on into the other world as well, and how to embrace the other world.
But the most important thing, too, is with "art works" is that it teaches us the basic elements of how to communicate within global communities. When I was at the Rauschenberg Residency [given by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation] this last January, I had the fortunate opportunity to work with so many wonderful artists, and there were three artists from Iran and the fact that they allowed me to collaborate in two of their pieces was such a great honor. But again it was that whole thing of art was able: art was our communication, it allowed us, enabled us, to communicate… Art is strategic because it allows us to communicate, to share our life experiences and to share our thoughts, and, most importantly, to develop our consciousness as human beings. So yes, art does "work," but I don't want to label it just art works--it's our lives.
NEA: Do you have any last words before we close the interview?
YELLOW ROBE: I want to give a thank you to all those in the Native arts community for doing their work and for supporting others. And I want to thank all those who supported me in my work, those who basically, when it came down to it, would help me pay rent, help me get gas for my car, took care of me when I was sick. I want to thank all those people who made it possible for me to do my work, to keep writing plays. I want to thank all those who sacrificed for me to be here so I can write, and so I can write plays. And who keep the demons from my doors. I want to thank all those people, because if it had not been for them, I wouldn't be writing plays.
Check out our interview with David Henry Hwang--one of William Yellow Robe's inspirations--here.