REVIEWS FOR TRAIL OF TEARS
Scott Stiffler for The Villager:
"History thrown at you like a hard left hook is the signature move of Rebel Theater Company — and they’ve scored another jarring knockout with “Trail of Tears,” currently on the boards at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, an East Village venue as steeped in art and activism as its young resident troupe.
Every show from Rebel’s ethnically, sexually and generationally diverse ensemble, assures Indo-Caribbean American director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, is like a church service — but don’t interpret that as an obligation to place their work in a realm where the sacred is witnessed from a respectful distance.
“It’s like the black church,” he specifies in his opening remarks. “We want you to laugh, clap, cry. This is not Broadway. You are Downtown now. There is no fourth wall, and Patti LuPone is not going to take your cell phone away.”
Having mounted productions addressing the Black Panther movement and Hurricane Katrina (plus a racially charged Civil War-set “Romeo & Juliet” that predated the Confederate flag debate), this current offering from Rebel Theater — which excels at dissecting matters of color, class, gender and justice — connects the atrocities of imperial Great Britain, Nazi Germany, Kosovo and Darfur to America’s original sin.
Based on events prompted by President Andrew Jackson’s signing of the Native American Removal Act in 1830, “Trail of Tears” is told in the style of a satirical docudrama — a provocative and deeply unsettling mix when applied to the themes of forced relocation and genocide. “Heightened reality that is comedic” but also “rooted in a painful truth” is how they put it, and appropriately so.
Written by Thomas J. Soto, directed by Maharaj and created in collaboration with The Eagle Project, “Trail of Tears” has 16 actors playing dozens of entitled oppressors, traumatized victims and detached scholars, as well as historical figures who deliver telling outtakes from pivotal speeches.
As in past productions, much of Rebel’s impact comes from its strength-in-numbers approach — distinguished this time by having the multicultural cast skillfully phase in and out of personas and ethnic identities. Latinos and Blacks become Native Americans, while Europeans are played by the production’s five-tribe-strong contingent of Native American actors.
Music also has the power to change at will, as familiar spirituals and patriotic anthems are recontextualized. When “This Little Light of Mine” collides with a boisterous interpretation of “The Jeffersons” theme song, the former’s message of defiant individualism becomes oddly ambiguous. And when the group belting out “This Land is Your Land” transforms into a smug chorus line of high-kicking Rockettes, there’s no denying that membership has its privileges.
Another savvy device (deployed early on to great effect then largely abandoned) has the white wig of a preening, self-satisfied Thomas Jefferson used as a talking stick whose power is wielded by various cast members — many of whom appear throughout as part of a Greek chorus. In bandaged bare feet, cut-off jeans and blood-spackled muscle shirts, they pound the floor into a state of thunderous, near-vibration during the recurring motif of Native Americans chanting while on a death march (“Walk, Walk, Walk.”).
It’s the play’s framing device, though, that rescues “Trail of Tears” from the temptation to park itself in a place of righteous indignation and stay there. A girl who identifies as “Two Spirit” (the Native American designation for LGBT) speaks about contemporary life on her reservation.
“Other ethnic groups are allowed to evolve over time,” she observes. “Why aren’t we?” Although Two Spirit existence was once a natural part of her culture, it’s suggested that the current atmosphere of intolerance is a symptom that exists alongside widespread alcoholism and diabetes. “One of the last stages of genocide, as you reduce a people to almost nothing,” she notes, “is for you to stand back and say, ‘Look at what they’re doing to themselves.’ ”
Along with a healing visit from her dancing spirit guide, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung, alternately and sincerely, in English and with Native American vocalizations — suggesting that those on the receiving end of America’s violent past can forge an identity without wholesale assimilation. That sliver of hope doesn’t exactly send you out of the theater on a high note, though, and why should it? This is a show that never wants you to forget that the land we occupy is “a nation built on a mountain of bones.”
Eric J. Grimm for Theatre Pizzazz:
"Rebel Theater Company and The Eagle Project have collaborated on Trail of Tears, a new play showing at the historical Nuyorican Poets Cafe. An energetic cast of seventeen presents the story of one of America’s greatest atrocities through song, dance, and satire with an aim toward educating audiences and displaying Native American pride. Their intentions are never short of genuine and admirable, which makes it difficult to evaluate the show’s artistic merit. The production bursts with passion and anger, which are its best assets even as it feels that the work might be reined in for better effect.
Led by Nerea Durhart, the ensemble shows full commitment to the play and its message throughout. Durhart is the center of the show, playing a troubled young woman of mixed heritage whose personal struggles prompt an exploration of the events proceeding and following The Trail of Tears. She is particularly effective as the show’s emotional core and her emotional evolution makes for a compelling narrative arc. Taking on dozens of roles each, the cast is rich with different ages and ethnicities with all members functioning as essential parts of an ensemble.
The show presents a comprehensive view of the horrors of the trail, though the execution could use more nuance. White male characters are mostly played with high villainy (they’d twirl their mustaches if they had them) and while they are deserving of a critical treatment, their portrayals lack the terrifying insidiousness that goes hand in hand with being a powerful politician. Horrifying events occur on the trail and the cast conveys these evil deeds by shouting and running around the intimate space. I can’t fault them for wanting to shout from the rooftops about America’s unforgivable treatment of Native Americans, but I also would be more moved as a spectator if more of the show were as restrained and heartbreaking as the opening scene in which Durhart laments her dual identity. While the in-your-face approach doesn’t always work for me, the production is undoubtedly effective as a conversation starter for those whose history books downplay the Trail’s devastating consequences."
Glenda Frank for New York Theatre Wire:
"Some performance artists and writers consider the world around them, gauge popular trends, or adapt arcane books. Some have a fire in their bellies, a story they need to tell. Playwright Thomas J. Soto began “Trail of Tears” in 2013 as a series of one-night installations to honor cultures lost to genocide. Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the producing Artistic Director of Rebel Theatre, who created and developed the project for the stage, called this series “The Remembrance Project.” Now playing at the Nuyorican Café in Lower Manhattan, “Trail of Tears,” like “Hamilton,” takes a second look at American history but from the perspective of Native Americans. The satirical docudrama is told through story, dance, performance, movement, and testimony. It is an engrossing 90 minutes.
The title is both metaphorical and a reference to the brutal relocation of the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma from their home in Georgia. The story of the Cherokees is particularly poignant. A peaceful people, they were so culturally sophisticated that they established the first newspaper in Oklahoma after bringing in the first printing press. They also introduced the telephone to the territory. But Soto is more concerned with the plight of the outsiders. The production opens with a young Native American woman who feels rejected by her people because she is gay. While the Navajo, Zuni and Plains Cree Indians valued their Two-Spirited members, the Cherokee disapproved. As she sleeps, four guardian spirit visit and then a dancer in full regalia. (Although his costume is not authentic, it conveys the magnificence of his presence as does his dancing.)
The dancer is the spirit of the ancestors. The young woman is the emotional center, our guide, as the work moves back in time to the various removal policies. We meet several peruked presidents, pronouncing policy decisions. The chorus wears white shirts with red and blue paint splatter. As they die, a result of government intervention, the red becomes their blood. The red, white and blue colors are both symbolic of who they are – Americans – and the irony. Scattered throughout the piece are the Pledge of Allegiance, The Star Spangled Banner and other patriotic songs recited with irony that tips into sarcasm by the Native Americans. We hear the phrases through their experience. It is unsettling.
The strength of the work is how the victims react as a group. The cerebral becomes the actual. In the rape and beating scenes, the faces of the terrified victims are haunting. The most moving moment was the tale of a father who lost his wife. His son, who was starving, howled in pain. The soldiers rounded up the crying children and drowned them. Actors step out of the chorus of 16, a mixture of Native Americans and others, to play individual roles: presidents, victims, soldiers, story tellers. The program identified them all as starring: Christopher Augustine, Samantha Clark, Nerea Duhart, Christopher Robert Ellis, Tony Enos, Darleen Rae Fontaine, Olivia Hoffman, Alana Inez, Wolfen de Kastro, Javon Minter, Michael Nephew, Richard Perez, Lamar Perry, Ryan Victor Pierce, Sheldon Raymore, and C. G. Reeves.
The net cast by the production is inclusive. The young woman often speaks Spanish and testimony is offered from many tribes. It is hard to get a bearing. It seems that the creative team is going for affect, which limits the work to preaching to the congregation."
Sam Gillette for Bedford & Bower:
“This is a chance to look at the first genocide,” said director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj as he opened last night’s performance of “Trail of Tears” at The Nuyorican Poets Café. The emotional storm of dance, song and soliloquy casts a satirical eye on the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 1830s.
Though too often forgotten, Maharaj said, the tragedy served as a precursor to the enslavement of Africans – bruises on the face of this country that have yet to heal. He quoted a long-gone English chief: “When you acknowledge the dead, the dead stand taller.”
The play opens in the present day, with a young Native American girl — its central thread — contemplating suicide and calling on a spirit of her people, who dances around her. The company reenacts the beatings, abuse and terror of the trail, while intermittently circling back to her. It’s a jolting reminder that the past continues to inform the present, but satire prevents the viewer from being crushed by the heavy subject matter.
Comic relief comes in the form of overly bright smiles, ridiculous silver wigs, and frantic clapping during reenacted speeches by Thomas Jefferson and succeeding presidents who championed removal of the “savages.” All of which highlight the hypocrisies and atrocities committed by the state. Choruses of “Yankee Doodle Dandee” and “This Little Light of Mine” are quickly dismantled by the purity of Native American chants and drumming.
“Many indigenous people throughout history have told stories through dance and through movement,” said one of the actors, Javon Minter, after the show. “It’s something a little more guttural, a little more primal. When I get into something that physical I find the truth.”
These visceral aspects intertwine with true stories and speeches from advocates and officials to create a full, bloody picture of the Cherokee experience and all Native American tribes. At the end of “Trail of Tears” you begin to question the origins of this country and the people who founded it (if you haven’t already).
“I think it was incredibly powerful and a story you don’t ever hear,” said audience member Dominique Bravo, who wiped away tears during the performance. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of the Native American [history] explained as genocide.”
“This foundation of systematic oppression against marginalized people, Native Americans, will keep being built upon and layered unless we take note of it,” said Dan Rosensweet, a Jewish man also in the audience last night. He explained that the “white washing” of the Holocaust is similar to the biased information about the Trail of Tears taught in high schools. “Just because things change doesn’t mean they’re better. And just because things get better doesn’t mean that they’re complete and over.”
This legacy resonates for the cast members – some of whom have Native American heritage. Michael Nephew, one of the older actors, spoke of his grandfather who was taken from his home on the back of a government agent’s horse at five years old. As an adult, his grandfather would go into the woods to speak Cherokee to the animals. Nephew also has ancestors who were part of the Trail of Tears before finding sanctuary in the surrounding hills.
“We hope to open up people’s eyes. A lot of people don’t know what happened on the trail,” said Nephew. “They don’t realize that many actually died or that there were rapes and tortures on the way.”
A fellow actor, Alana Inez, wrapped her arms around his shoulders and said, “I want to honor those who came before me.”
Sydney Arndt for Women Around Town:
"A strikingly relevant event is happening at the Nuyorican Poets Café this month. Today in modern America we are inundated with clips and images of blatant violence and racial discrimination from all angles. From Charleston, SC, over to Ferguson, MO and northward to Staten Island, NY, America seems more like a battleground than the land of the free. We have to stop and ask the questions: Why here? Why now? Playwright Thomas J. Soto and director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj offer an answer with the world premiere of the “Trail of Tears.” By reflecting on the first American genocide that occurred with the passing of the Native American Removal Act of 1830, the artists connect the dots from then to now with powerful imagery and reverence for the first Americans, the Native Americans.
Rajendra and collaborator Ryan Victor “Little Eagle” Pierce of the Eagle Project gave a warm welcome to preface the show. They opened the space up by welcoming the audience to react to the actors, which is akin to call and response, a traditional Native American practice. Rajendra spoke a bit about why they chose to explore this subject with political satire – to make the ideas more digestible. They forewarned that the material could make the audience move to anger, which I found to be very true. Rajendra has been inspired by the docudrama work of theatre practitioners Anna Deavere Smith and Emily Mann, who are known for the mixing of personal stories and historical narrative. This type of docudrama theatre lends itself to activist theatre, or theatre for social change as it is more commonly called. It’s meant to be raw in its truthfulness, but ultimately empowering. The philosophy behind this genre of performance is that we can free ourselves by unveiling the truths, as ugly and painful as they may be. Brushing history under the rug encourages stagnancy; we can only move forward by reconciling with the past. Rajendra states, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with great courage and truth need not be lived again.”
The play opens with a young woman in a heightened state. We learn that she is two-spirited, which is a Native person who identifies as LGBT, expressing both masculine and feminine qualities in varying degrees. Because of this, she feels like an outcast within her Native American community and family. Her present-day struggle then launches back through time into a high-energy exploration of life after the Native American Removal Act. Through movement, dance, frozen tableaus, spoken word, and songs, an ensemble of 16 performers depict life on the oppressive voyage out west with one-hundred percent commitment. The story isn’t linear but rather a collage of images and moments that create a tidal wave impact. Satirical impersonations of President Andrew Jackson and Michelle Obama paired with realistic portrayals of Native American chiefs and others who nearly died on the march create an emotional journey for the audience. Five different tribes are represented within the cast, including: the eastern band of Cherokee, Azteca/Huastec Maya, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, Choctaw and Sioux. The comedic caricatures of political figures juxtaposed with realistic re-enactments of slavery and sexual violence reinforced the tragedy built into the history of the U.S.
All the while, a beautiful tapestry of American flags and Native quilts frames the playing space and is a constant point of focus for the ensemble. Each time the ensemble turned in unison to look up at the flag it made me question what it truly means to be an American – a person born from a violent foundation, but instilled with a sense of hope, freedom, and prosperity. The production sparked such a visceral feeling in my gut and I do believe that was the intention of the show, considering the style of performance. It’s difficult to intellectualize genocide and tragedy of this magnitude, which is why this production was more about feeling. And yet, it was educational in showing how we got to a point where present-day Native American reservations are stifled with domestic abuse, alcoholism, diabetes and AIDS. They certainly didn’t bring it on themselves!
The show comes back full circle as the young woman from the opening scene comes to see the beauty and strength of the two-spirits within her. The uprising of memories from her ancestors allowed her to heal. The hope is that we can move forward toward racial and cultural equity through understanding the past as this character was able to do. Only then will Woody Guthrie’s famous lyrics, “This land is your land. This land is my land. This land was made for you and me,” be fully realized.