jakub | December 8, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Superheroes on Native Land, Part 2

In the first installment of this three-part story, we met Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse, the Cornerstone Theater Ensemble, and the Oyate—i.e., the people of D/N/Lakota nations across what’s now known as South Dakota. We also covered a lot of Native and theatrical history, and traced the first inklings of a play that would speak in the voices of those communities. From those communities, we heard, among other things, a resounding call for Native superheroes.

The Play Begins

At the heart of this story, a troubled Lakota trans youth becomes a superhero.

First came the COVID outbreak, then the playwright’s breakthrough. Then came the play, Wicoun, a draft of which would be read three months later, in December 2022, for community audiences in Rapid City, S.D., and Kyle, S.D., with a statewide tour scheduled to begin the following May. 

Wicoun is an origin story about the making of a male superhero named Ahí. We meet Ahí as Áya, a teenager struggling with gender transition and a recent sexual assault. Assigned female gender at birth, Áya lives in a two-spirit or non-binary space with their gay cousin-sibling Khoskalaka, hoping one day to become fully Khoskalaka’s “brother.” Played by 9A (nee-nuh), an Oglala Lakota singer-songwriter who lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Áya’s journey mirrors 9A’s, as a trans woman for whom this project represents a way of “to say goodbye to the part of me that was like a man.”

In Wicoun, Áya spends the days fending off local predators—specifically a white tweaker named Todd—and suicidal thoughts that led to at least one previous attempt. The world spins threateningly around her and Khoskalaka, as we see at the top of the play, when a chorus of voices assaults the pair: “Why do you have to be such a freak? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be a normal girl? Get away from me, fag. Don’t be a sissy. You need a real man to make you a woman.” A final phrase is repeated twice: “Why don’t you just kill yourself?”

The teens have taken charge of a wild litter of children, a blurry brood of cousins, siblings, half-siblings, and, in the case of one boy named Bradley, a kid they’ve never seen before, who each assumed was related to the other. With no adults to be found and no models for “normal,” Áya and Khoskalaka are the only family they have. The teens are white-knuckling it, feeding the pack as best they can, putting them through school, and keeping them safe from neighborhood meth addicts, sexual predators, and other reservation dangers. First, though, they have to get them to bed.

That’s where Khoskalaka, played by Cornerstone ensemble member Kenny Ramos, comes in: A budding graphic artist, he produces homemade comics each night so that their charges have bedtime stories. Tonight’s story features zombies modeled on the neighborhood’s meth heads, as the teenager’s actual lives and the superhero version converge. Like the nightly cartoons themselves, playwright Larissa FastHorse’s comic play blends hilarity of approach with urgency of concern, entirely avoiding what Michael calls “reservation poverty porn.” Also much like FastHorse, Khoskalaka connects modern tales to traditional teachings of the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota nations, out of the belief that, when it comes to the problems of the day, “The Oceti Sakowin have lots of answers that we just don’t use anymore. I mean, think about the old stories. Our people had real power. Super power.”

Enter Elder Superhero. Very, very slowly.

Though “real life” superheroes will help Áya on her hero’s journey, the first to arrive as part of Khoskalaka’s comic book is Elder Superhero, whose task is to rid the neighborhood of zombies—i.e., tweakers pushing “methicine” on children. The idea is Áya’s: “It should be an elder that talks really slowly for a really, really long time…Tweakers are all anxious, right? The elder talks them into submission. The more stressed the tweaker gets, the slower the elder talks, until they fall asleep.”

Rosetta Badhand-Walker, who plays Elder Superhero, met Larissa and Michael in 2018 when they were in Arizona collecting stories for a previous Cornerstone residency. She knew nothing about the playwright or about Cornerstone but was “really intrigued,” then “pleasantly surprised,” by the way Larissa sat and listened as she documented the community’s concerns. Rosetta had never been in a space “where people from the outside came in and genuinely wanted to hear what we had to say.”

Rosetta Badhand Walker.

At that time she was a grassroots advocate to spur action from the Arizona House of Representatives on House Bill 2570, “Establishing A Study Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” Rosetta, like the character she ultimately played in Native Nation, was working to spread awareness about an epidemic of violence against Indigenous Women “to non-Natives that really had no clue, no idea what was going on in Indian country across Turtle Island.” At 7 p.m., after a very long day at the House of Representatives, where she was part of the last group to give testimony, members of her committee dropped Rosetta off at Steel Indian School Park in Phoenix to audition for Native Nation.

“It was a long day, and I was so invigorated, so charged, so emotionally connected that I walked into that audition and it just spilled out, how I felt about it,” Rosetta recalled. She got cast and made her advocacy on behalf of the MMIW part of the play.

Stories are the elder’s superpower—tale-telling that brings cultural awareness to their community. At Lakota Youth Development in Rosebud, S.D., its founder, Marla Bull Bear, informs the Cornerstone folks that when community elder Jerome Kills Small enters one of their rehearsals or class sessions, they should stop whatever they’re doing so that the children can listen to his stories. He will talk as long as he wishes to, and they’ll have to remain flexible around that cultural priority.

Rosetta’s personal origin story sits within a painful history. Born to Indigenous parents, with a father from Rosebud and a mother from Standing Rock, she was part of what’s called the “Sixties Scoop.” Leading up to and through the 1960s—until the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978—as many as 35 percent of Native children were regularly removed, usually by force, from immediate and extended Native families and placed in predominantly non-Native homes. In fact, state efforts to remove these children and place them with white families and religious groups were sometimes funded by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“I was one of those children,” Rosetta recounts. “When I was 2 years old and my half-sister was 4, we were physically removed from our Native mother and father and placed in white foster care. So I grew up without my language, without my culture, in a farming/ranching community in McIntosh, South Dakota.” Her foster parents were “caregivers” at best, but not what she considers true family. Whereas Larissa, raised since she was 11 months old by adoptive white parents she loves and fully considers family, returns home to South Dakota as often as possible, Wicoun has brought Rosetta back to her homeland for the first time since 1983. “I’ve really never had any call to come back.”

Until there was an actual call. In the years after Native Nation, Rosetta followed Larissa on social media, up to and including her historic Broadway debut with The Thanksgiving Play earlier this year. That’s how she knew that Cornerstone was about to rehearse a new play in South Dakota. Still, it was a surprise when her phone rang during a staff retreat at Arizona State University, where her title is Elder Residents Program Aide and her job is to foster Native student retention at ASU. “My phone is on silent, but it vibrates,” she recalls. “I look at the number and it comes up: Cornerstone Theater.”

She stepped out of the meeting and took the call. Wicoun producer Michael Garcia asked her, “Would you be interested in joining our cast as an elder superhero?” Recalls Rosetta, “I didn’t hesitate at all. I was like, ‘Oh yes! Please tell me more.’” She worked out a brief leave of absence with her supportive program director at ASU to join Wicoun rehearsals, flying out on Mother’s Day in May and returning on Father’s Day in June.

Rosetta is just one of five actors in this story who will travel from far-flung reservations, rural communities, cities, and towns, leaving home and family for two months to work on a play they haven’t yet read and perform whatever roles they might be assigned. Several have never acted before. They are here to change their lives. They are here to give back to the people they love.

Vicki the Brave 

Áya needs help to become the superhero Ahí. Lots of it. This journey entwines a superhero origin story of coming into one’s power with that of a gender transition. Both threads require Áya to cultivate the bravery, perseverance, and generosity to overcome the dangers of the world and be born anew. Each of the qualities—or “requisite virtues,” in historian and educator Joseph Marshall’s phrase—comes to Áya in the form of a superhero teacher. They arrive one at a time, not in bedtime stories like the Elder Superhero, but in life.

First comes Wóohitike, who possesses “super strength.” According to Joseph Marshall, Wóohitike translates as “having or showing courage” in the face of life’s challenges. “Ultimate adversity produces ultimate strength,” the Lakota historian writes. Yes, Wóohitike means “bravery”—and much more. “English is so limiting,” the superhero laments. 

Once on the scene, the mighty Wóohitike helps Áya overcome predatory neighbors: meth-head Todd (“white guy”) and “Native party dude” Marcus. Powerful enough to lift a car or really big boulders (“I mean, if they want to be lifted”), she can spin Marcus overhead, WWE-style, and toss him “pretty far.” She can twist  “rez-neck” Todd like a pretzel till he vows to stay off the reservation.

Wóohitike the strong is played by Victoria Picotte-Sunbear, who lives on Rosebud Reservation and whose chance to audition for Wicoun starts as a joke. Her father forwards her the link announcing auditions because he knows she’s scared of public speaking. “He’s like, hey, you should try this. Ha ha. LOL,” says Vicki, as she’s known. She lets the notice sit in her Messenger before discussing it with her husband. Vicki has never acted before, though she worked backstage a little in high school. She’s a formerly certified nurse’s aide and a stay-at-home mom with 1- and 4-year-old daughters from whom she’s never been away. Also, she’s pregnant again, and will be late in her second trimester during the Wicoun tour. She doesn’t know anything about the play, but with her husband and father’s sincere support, she realizes she wants to do it.

Victoria Picotte-Sunbear.

The money from the play will also be hugely helpful for the family, as it will be for several of the community actors. Cornerstone originally contracted them at South Dakota’s minimum wage—$10.80/hour, or $432 per 40-hour-work-week—but later decided to pay South Dakota’s living wage of $15.41 hourly, or $616 for a 40-hour week (plus room and meals during rehearsals and while on tour, housing and per diem). This bump up came as a welcome surprise and, for many of the actors, represented a significant raise over their regular income.

Vicki’s mom lives on the Yankton reservation, and when she reads Wicoun’s description and sees that her daughter will play a superhero with super strength, she feels the part was written for her. Even as a child, Vicki was her mother’s “pillar of strength.” Vicki’s sense of “just knowing” when something is right for her also goes deep. At 11, for example, she knew she didn’t want the life she witnessed on Rosebud and convinced her father to send her to Catholic boarding school in Huxley, Iowa, where she lived with five different host families until she finished high school.

With characteristic moxie, Vicki conquers her own fear and, like her character, “just shows up,” as Larissa recalls it. “We’re like, ‘Yeah!’” She lands the part. She is Wóohitike. And she loves being onstage. “It makes me feel good to see the way people react, that they laugh and that I’m causing them joy.” Larissa and Michael are “super-excited to have a really pregnant superhero portraying the strongest person.” Both of them believe that with training, Vicki could be a professional. She has an innate sense of how an actor’s body and comic mask work together. Her performance never falters. She is confident and strong onstage—brave as hell—and proudly sports her burgeoning belly.

It’s also clear that Vicki works round the clock to keep the family running, even during rehearsals 200 miles from her husband and daughters. She’s the engine that can’t stop. Online all hours with her family, she tends to her youngest’s strep throat from afar. This pillar of strength keeps everything running, even as she toils away on tour—cleaning diligently when the company packs up its rehearsal quarters, loading and unloading the truck, folding massive tarps with muscular precision—despite urgings to kick back. Meantime, she’s returned to college online to earn her bachelor’s degree in marketing and advertising. In the middle of rehearsals, Vicki finds out she’s carrying a girl, her third daughter.

If Bravery is her stage name, Vicki considers authenticity her real-life superpower. “To me that means being my most authentic self so that I can give people the confidence and ability to be their most authentic selves.” What makes her feel most powerful? “Being a mother.”

Generous Perseveres

In May 2023, a few days before the first performance, puppet designer Lynn Jeffries shuttles around the porch of her cabin at the Placerville Camp and Retreat Center, where the company is housed and rehearses in the weeks leading up to the tour. She is trying out a six-and-a-half foot Hexacomb bear puppet with an actor named Generous. Hexacomb—rigid cardboard an inch thick that is often used as a replacement for foam packaging—will travel light and be easy to set up and quick to strike in all kinds of touring venues. The bear attaches by a knotted rope at the nose, sternum, and navel, allowing it to lumber appropriately. Generous operates it from behind.

Generous is Christopher Alexander Piña’s Lakota name, given to him by his grandmother, who told him, “It’s because you’re generous, grandson, that you keep getting blessed,” and who named him Wačante Ognaka Wičasa, “Generous man.” He had directed a reading of Larissa’s play Average Family at the Black Hills Community Theatre in Rapid City, after which Cornerstone held a community reading of a draft of Wicoun. When Christopher told Larissa his Lakota name, she replied that one of the superheroes in the play is named Generosity. “You might end up playing yourself,” she said. “And I was like, how uncanny is that?” As it turned out, however, that’s the name of the third superhero. Generous/Christopher instead plays superhero number two: the animal shape-shifting Wówachiŋtȟaŋke, which means Perseverance.

Generous/Christopher tries out a puppet as its builder, Lynn Jeffries, looks on.

It’s easy to understand how, for the Plains Native bands, perseverance would be a necessary virtue. “When resistance ceased to be an option,” Joseph Marshall explains, “surviving within the parameters of white control on the reservations was the only choice. There was no other option but to reach deep inside and persevere day in and day out, year in and year out, from one generation to the next.”

Wówachiŋtȟaŋke’s origin story is a version of Áya’s life story, with animal transformation instead of gender change. It provides backstory for both characters, a description of past events that led them here. “As a child, I was different,” the superhero explains. “I could not control what kind of animal I was. It scared people, even my own family.” Like Áya, Wówachiŋtȟaŋke ran away to live with a sibling, who loved them no matter what form they took. Also like Áya, they were hounded by evil villains who “did not understand what I was.”

Not knowing how to defend themselves, both Áya and Wówachiŋtȟaŋke contemplated suicide. The superhero grew small—a flea—and wished to become even smaller, until they ceased to exist. Both were saved by the love of their siblings and the little ones they cared for. “I thought of all that I had overcome already and knew that if I disappeared, I would be missed. I knew that I had resilience, and that I would not let my trauma define my future.” Wówachiŋtȟaŋke transformed into a deer and ran home, ever after possessing the power “to change into different animals at will.”

Larissa and the creative team initially imagined that Wówachiŋtȟaŋke would be a single character played by an actor with puppets of four different sizes, starting with an “itty-bitty one” and growing to human size and larger, all based on the actor playing the role and the costume. In a later  draft, though, Larissa reconceived Wówachiŋtȟaŋke with the power to change into any animal form, transforming before our eyes into six different animals.

Around the time of that revision, the creative team was also rethinking group scenes—without actual people. The COVID outbreak at Milks Camp in August 2022, and the subsequent decision to avoid audience participation and large locally rehearsed choruses, meant that, according to puppet designer Lynn Jeffries, “A couple of pieces of the play that were going to be performed by human beings now needed to be performed some other way.” Remember Áya and Khoskalaka’s brood of kids? Pre-Milks Camp, they were to be played by local children rallied by community partners at each tour stop. Now? Puppets.

As the longest-serving original ensemble member (Peter Howard has also been in the company since day one but took a brief hiatus in the ’90s), Lynn has designed all production elements for more than 60 Cornerstone shows over the years. Now, after years of working with shadow puppets and toy theatre, she prefers puppetry. So when set designer Nephelie Andonyadis suggested the Hexacomb, Lynn was in her (two-dimensional) comfort zone. Plus, with a script that promised to be in continual flux—especially with the playwright busy with a play on Broadway until the start of rehearsals—Lynn reasoned, “Okay, I can just bang the puppets out in a couple of hours. If the play changes again, I can just bang out something different.”

And so Lynn designs as the show evolves, projecting drawings on Hexacomb and constructing from there. Sometimes, assistant director Sapphire Tiger, a Mnícoujou/Sičánǧu Lakota and Navajo student from Black Hills State University, helps cut them out. 

Generous performs Wówachiŋtȟaŋke’s tale in Lakota, not English, as the attacks and animal transformations play out as a Hexacomb puppet show behind a cutout proscenium arch. There are no supertitles, no program notes. The only translation (quoted above) appears in the script itself.

Larissa only recently began studying Lakota in an online class, though she’d been “toying with it on my own” for a while. She wrote Wówachiŋtȟaŋke’s origin story in English, and it was translated, along with the many Lakota passages in the play, by Milks Camp elder Jerome Kills Small. Jerome also recorded the text, so that the actors less conversant with the language could learn by listening. The play ends in Lakota, too, with a final speech by Ahí, the superhero Áya becomes. Over the years, Larissa and Michael entertained the possibility that the whole play might be in Lakota, as some people had requested as early as 2021. In the final version, the two languages alternate, with much of the dialogue in English, and these key moments—including some choral passages—in Lakota.

Christopher Alexander Piña, a.k.a. Generous.

In one such choral moment the entire cast, speaking Lakota, recites a long list of responses to a prompt offered at community story circles over the years of engagement: “My superpower is…” When, in an interview, Christopher responds to the prompt, his words could describe the character he plays: “My superpower has probably been fortitude. That’s actually my Auntie’s Lakota name, and it means to persevere, to push through. Even when it’s hard, because it hurts to walk, we’ve still got to get up and move forward somehow. We’re basically the roses that grew from the concrete, like Tupac stated, because I come from a place where it’s not okay to be two-spirit, it’s not okay to be brown, and it’s not okay to be male and to be those things. So I wake up with three strikes against me, and I have to be aware of that every time I open my eyes.” As a two-spirit little brother, “almost raised by my sisters, I completely connected with this play. And then the bullying—I was bullied even as an adult.” Fortitude allows him  “to see another world out there, where there’s acceptance, where it’s sacred, where you’re praised instead of punished.”

This project represents the coming together of so many aspects of Christopher’s life that each coincidence feels like part of a design. Most remarkable of all is the fact that he’s a self-described “shapeshifter” playing one. Believe it or not, he auditioned for Cornerstone in the middle of a snowstorm wearing a reindeer costume. Why? “Because I wear it during the holidays. I’m everything: I’m the Easter Bunny, I’m Cupid, I’m an elf.” He costumes up for kids and hands out gifts, determined to show them that who they are is important. “So I was a reindeer when they took my audition picture. I was joking, ‘I’m Randy the Reindeer, and I just want to lead the sleigh.’” Plus, His connection to Wicoun is also a connection to the way of life from which the play grew. A Standing Rock Hunkapapa Sioux, Christopher traces his matrilineage back to great-great-great-grandma Angela RedFox Uses Arrow, who followed Sitting Bull after the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn, first to Canada and then back to Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

The art part of Cornerstone’s work also comes naturally to him: He started modeling professionally on a trip to New York and, later, in Canada. He performed as a dancer in New Orleans. The door to Christopher’s room at the Placerville Camp is usually open, and he’s covered the walls and windows with beautiful fabrics and sparkling, colored lights. He is a writer too, an intern at the Native Sun News in Rapid City, where he has become aware that “everyone is a story and everyone has a story.”

Of Wicoun, he says, “We are on the star path here.”

Gina Gives It All Away 

Áya’s third and final magical assist comes from the superhero with Christopher’s name, Generosity, played by his real-life friend, Gina Project Celebrity Mallory. At 29, Gina is a few years younger than Christopher, and stumbled into Wicoun by following him (in his full reindeer drag) when he went to try out. Together they trudged through the thick of a winter storm that kept almost everyone else away from auditions.

It’s her first time onstage, but not the first time she followed him into Larissa’s world. When Christopher directed the Rapid City reading of Average Family, he recruited Gina to help with props. Does she enjoy acting? “It’s hard, but it is so fun—definitely an experience I feel that everybody should experience at least once in their life,” she says.

The role of Wówačhaŋtognake represents generosity and compassion, which are, in Joseph Marshall’s telling, separate Lakota virtues, but have been elided by Larissa into one superhero, who teaches Áya that to be truly generous, one must “hold nothing back” and “trust in being provided for.” Joseph Marshall paraphrases “an ancient sentiment” to explain “why generosity is necessary: ‘The Earth Mother gives us all that she has. We must do the same.’”

Gina Project Celebrity Mallory.

Like Christopher and most of the cast, Gina identifies closely with her character. This reflects both Larissa and Michael’s canny casting intuition, as well as their eagerness to suit the characters to the people playing them. “We’ll come up with some text,” Michael explains, “and then we’ll cast a bunch of people who really change what the text is.”

“I’m just like my character,” Gina says. “I’m always so giving, and I’m always the one that rushes to help right away. I don’t believe in holding onto very many possessions. What I have with me is what I have in life because I give everything and anything away.”

She and Christopher started a “Regiftmas” one holiday season, giving presents to 32 families in Rapid City and Pine Ridge. They helped 172 people with gifts, including animals, adults and children. Online and in conversation, they heard from a lot of people who don’t celebrate Christmas because they haven’t received gifts in years. So they solicited gifts, wrapped them, and sent them back out to others.

These gestures resonate with the example of Sitting Bull. Larissa tells me that the 19th-century Hunkpapa Lakota leader, having grown quite wealthy, in part by controlling the rights to his own ubiquitous photographic image, gave some of his money to his own people and donated the rest to poor white communities. Why would he give his wealth to people who were, for all intents and purposes, his enemies? He was upset by what he saw, Larissa explains. He didn’t understand how people who have so much could let their own people suffer in this way.

Born Sicangu Miniconjou Lakota and Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux, Gina was adopted by her grandmother, whom she calls “my mom.” Her compassion is especially attuned to the struggles of teenagers and children these days, their “tribulations” from “the drugs, the violence, the alcoholism.” Her heart goes out to the suffering of others.

In Megan’s Prius on the way to the first performance, I’m in the back seat with Christopher, who has earbuds in and is going over his Lakota monologue while oiling and braiding his long, just-washed hair. Gina’s in the front passenger seat. She knows this part of the world intimately, and many of the places we pass on the way to the Black Hills Playhouse remind her of jobs she held there, including food service and flagging traffic for road work. Other locations kindle memories and stories of her life and community. Though she speaks matter-of-factly, it’s easy to hear both pain and love in these often tragic stories.

In the play, Wówačhaŋtognake’s power is super speed, which Michael stages by slowing everyone onstage to extreme slo-mo, while Gina moves with normal, no-hurry ease, covering great distances in a hot second.  In life, she goes at her own pace too. When we drive past the glorious Pactola Lake in the Black Hills, Gina says she spends her summers there, going almost daily to be alone, “drinking my drinks and smoking my smokes.” She rides the length of the water in her own time, on her long board.

The Black Hills

At the heart of this story—of everything—is the land.

The geographic heart of this story is one I almost missed. It’s the piece that—as a white man who has lived for more than 60 years in major cities, working at and mostly attending a very different kind of theatre—I heard wrong. Then, sitting with some of the cast over a delicious dinner of roasted chicken and a dish of beans, corn, and squash called Three Sisters Mash, all prepared by company chef Sharea Holcomb, I got it.

It was two weeks into rehearsals, my first full day at the Placerville Camp and Retreat Center, 18 months after my previous South Dakota visit with Cornerstone. I hadn’t yet read the full Wicoun script but had watched the company stage scene 12, “Driving in Rapid City”: After sending the children off to school, Áya and Khoskalaka head to the city with Wóohitike (Bravery) and Wówachiŋtȟaŋke (Perseverance), the first two virtuous superheroes. (The car, like so much else, is made of Hexacomb, drawn by Nephelie and colorfully painted by local Diné graffiti artist Focus Smith.) They will meet with Chris, the older comic book nerd, played by Brandon J. Sazue Sr. They hope he can unravel the mystery of the characters in the back seat.

Áya also wants to attend a Native protest at Mount Rushmore known as the “Blow Up the Faces Rally,” the latest in a series of failed attempts to rid the Black Hills of the white granite faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt (Teddy), and Lincoln. Carved into land that is sacred to the Lakota—land promised in perpetuity to the Sioux in 1868 and grabbed back by the U.S. a decade later when gold was discovered there—Mount Rushmore celebrates the leaders of a settler culture that annihilated so much Indigenous life. It is a monument to genocide, land theft, and governmental deceit. Blowing up the faces is, for the Native population, a thing; it is also, throughout the play, a laugh line.

Still trying to suss out their powerhouse companions, Áya welcomes them to Rapid City and asks, “Have you two been here?” Wówachiŋtȟaŋke answers, “We are all from here. It is the heart of everything that is.” My big-city mind hears irony in the line, and I laugh—the joke being that only deluded inhabitants of Rapid City, S.D., would think it’s the center of the universe (when everyone knows that Brooklyn is). At dinner, however, I learn from Vicki and Brandon that, for the Lakota people, the Black Hills are the heart of everything, because they’re the site of their origin story, their emergence from the spirit world or spirit lodge. As part of the Lakota creation myth, the Oyate originally entered the human world through a portal in the Black Hills Wind Cave or, in modern Lakota, Maka Oníya, “breathing earth.” That’s why it’s sacred. That’s why Mount Rushmore is a desecration. There you have it: Rapid City, specifically the Black Hills, is the heart of everything. The joke, it seems, was on me.

Placerville Camp and Retreat Center.

“So much of Native identity and culture is rooted in land and this connection to the land,” Kenny Ramos told me in the summer of ’21. He had arrived in South Dakota ahead of Michael and Larissa, and immediately hiked the Black Hills with Clementine Bordeaux. When Larissa and Michael landed a few days later, “The first thing we did was a hike in the Black Hills,” he says. “We did Black Elk Peak, which is the tallest peak in South Dakota. So for me, I think first and foremost, it’s just important to be out and connecting to the land in that way.”

When the time comes to tour, Kenny prefers the outside performances, “even though it’s sweaty and hot as fuck. There’s something really special about being outside, about the journey of creating the play starting in He Sapa, the Black Hills. In the birthing and creation of this piece, the land has been a very big part.”

Surrounded by those very same hills, Placerville Camp, a Christian retreat center 12 miles outside of Rapid, provides the perfect setting to rehearse and house the company. Placerville is “the most extraordinary, beautiful campsite one might imagine,” Michael wrote when he, Kenny, Larissa, and Peter first saw it in August 2021. They were awed by it. It helped, too, that Sharla and Kerry Stever, who run the camp, were schoolmates of Larissa’s.

Almost two years after this initial sighting, on the company’s last Saturday after nearly six weeks in Placerville, the camp preens its glory under cloudless skies, crystal blue after the previous night’s thunderstorms. Rapid Creek, which borders the property, flows under a wooden bridge spanning this bank and the verdant woods across the way, the water mildly glinting in the sun. A turkey vulture floats overhead. Birds call from everywhere, each with a different song. It might be 70 degrees, hotter in the sun, but a slight breeze keeps me cool as I sit on a grassy slope running from the base of the camp’s chapel to the creek. Nearby the Steverses and their colleagues are raising a permanent gazebo supported by Ponderosa Pine columns, 24 inches in diameter, 8 feet high, and 175 years old, each weighing about 1,000 pounds. 

Behind the chapel, Peter Howard gathers the actors and leads them through warmups. During his decades at Cornerstone through hundreds, even thousands of cross-cultural encounters, Peter has held steady as the seasoned, dedicated professional embodying the performance standards expected from all, even those who, like Vicki, Gina, and Brandon, have never acted before. Like the rest of the Cornerstone company, he never patronizes his amateur colleagues or falsely meliorates. He remains respectful and authentic. From my perch, I can see the way Peter assumes full commitment at every moment. The cast vocalizes with movement, releasing their words and voices into the air. “Topeka Bodega, Bodega Topeka.” I hear the echo of their words from what sounds like miles away in the hills. “Hello Placerville!” they call. From the surrounding pines, Placerville calls back: “Hello!”

The Black Hills, the heart of everything, is where performances begin. On the day of the first show, which is also the first dress rehearsal and full run-through, I enter the Placerville dining hall as others pass in and out, faces serious and sleepy. “Is something happening today?” I ask, a smartass. Ash Nichols, the company’s tour production manager, responds, “You mean our first performance and the start of packing and touring?” Lynn Jeffries pipes in with wry wisdom, uttering what could be Cornerstone’s motto: “Something will happen.”

Elder Superhero Rosetta finishes breakfast. “Ready for the day?” I ask. “It’s scary,” she answers. “But kinda like a good scary.”

May 25, 2023, Custer State Park

We enter the campus of the 77-year-old Black Hills Playhouse, a long-term partner for the project and the one professional theatre on the itinerary, though the show will perform outside by the covered picnic area and not in the rustic jewel box theatre. The Playhouse company and interns arrived only the day before. They will break rehearsal for The Lifespan of a Fact to attend Wicoun. BHP’s summer stock season also includes Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky and two musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone and 9 to 5.

As the company unloads the rented cargo van, it seems like the circus has come to Custer. Larissa stands tall in the truck bed, handing down sandbags made from the 400 pounds of sand that production manager Ash and managing director Megan bought at the Ace Hardware in Rapid a few days before. Without them, the set would blow over in the Plains wind at every outdoor performance. Cast and crew carry costume boxes and racks to indoor dressing rooms past the Playhouse’s washing machines and low shelves of graying published plays.

The set outside Black Hills Playhouse.

Tape measures mark the lawn playing area with an X, bookended by pop-up tents sprayed in kaleidoscopic motley by graffiti artist Focus: Bear Butte on one side, Devil’s Tower on the other. Small colored cones border the downstage edge. A backdrop of brilliant blues, pink, yellow, and green—sunrise over the Black Hills—painted by retired Lakota language teacher Matt Uses Knife (with a duplicate curtain Nephelie painted hanging behind, creating visual depth) and cut into dangling strips, flutters in the breeze. Nephelie has engaged these Native artists and prompted them to use parts of the set as canvas for their painted dreamscapes. Likewise, she set  Oglala Lakota College graphic art student Teslah “Sota” Knight to work on the comic book-style signage—the SMASH, KABOOM, and OUCH words that accompany the final melee.

A BHP company management intern leads me to the garden shed, where I find a shovel suitable for scooping dried bison patties the size of small satellite dishes from the playing space. In less than half an hour, the “stage” is set.

Michael rehearses quick changes, including the entrance of two meth-dealing zombies, played by Brandon and Peter. Focus lies on the hill among the dandelions (safely away from where I piled the bison poop). He has no reason to be nervous.

I think about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Annie Get Your Gun. In the Irving Berlin musical, the Indians, often played by white actors, largely serve as comic foils, including Sitting Bull, who did in fact tour with Buffalo Bill after his return from Canada. (As a young actor Kenny Ramos performed in that show twice, and he cites it as an example of how, before meeting Cornerstone, “I had never done anything that was truthful about American Indians onstage.”) Today, in a historic turnaround, the Indians bring the show. The tents are theirs, the stories are theirs, and they are the main act in a production that will travel to predominantly Indigenous communities, though this first audience, drawn from the Playhouse’s traditional audience, looks to be mostly white.

Larissa takes the stage with rock star energy and proclaims, “I’m from South Dakota.” Loud applause. She tells them that, as a kid, she saw many plays at Playhouse. Now she’s here with a play written about what the Native people of this land said they wanted to hear. Michael follows apologetically: “Unfortunately, I’m not from South Dakota.” He cautions the crowd that the company hasn’t run the whole show before, that Larissa will be on book and may call out lines. “I may run onstage and yell ‘Stop!’” More applause resounds from the timber shelter in and around which more than 70 people wait to become Wicoun’s first house.

The audience watches a preview of “Wicoun.”

Laughter resounds too throughout the performance, and the cast grows confident. Larissa does shout out a few lines when an actor freezes. Michael stops the show just once—they need more time to arrange the puppets for Wówachiŋtȟaŋke’s origin story. The wind whips up when Vicki, as Wóohitike, shows her strength, and it feels like part of the play. The wind isn’t quite as kind to the cardboard puppets and set. But the audience is more than kind. Wicoun is off and running.

“In a Cornerstone show, the first performance takes a quantum leap beyond the dress rehearsal,” Lynn, a veteran of 150 productions, notes. “It’s not really until you get an audience that you understand what you’re doing, and then you get it in a deep, electric way. And it’s remarkable. Watching that happen is one of the great privileges of my life—watching the community cast light up.”

In the next and final installment: More things go wrong—some tragic, some comic, some elemental—as the company tours without a net.

Todd London (he/him) is a former managing editor of American Theatre and the author of numerous books on the theatre, including This Is Not My Memoir with Andre Gregory, An Ideal Theater, Outrageous Fortune, The Importance of Staying Earnest, and The Artistic Home, as well as two novels, If You See Him, Let Me Know and The World’s Room. A long-term artistic director of New York’s New Dramatists, he won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and was the first recipient of Theatre Communications Group’s Visionary Leadership Award.

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