Play Questions Idea of Trying to Find “the Truth” of History
It can be exciting to deconstruct history and expose false narratives that have been repeated so often they take on the patina of truth. But doing so in a theatrical performance can also be messy, even confounding, for an audience. In his new play, Ain Gordon takes on the ambitious goal of fostering questions about any historical account, particularly those regarding Native Americans.
His new play, “The History of Asking the Wrong Question,” had a two-night run in Albuquerque November 16th-17th at the VSA North Fourth Art Center. The work was billed as “live fictitious documentary,” and it asks how Anglo Americans and Native Americans differ in telling the histories of Native cultures. But beyond that, it explores whether we can even ask that question and get a “true” answer. That makes it more than a re-hash of the post-modern conundrum on who gets to tell history and why we need to hear from disenfranchised voices.
Though not Native himself, the Obie-Award winning playwright began exploring the topic when he learned about the Tongva people, whose ancestral lands are in modern-day Los Angeles. However, they are not federally recognized as a tribe and Gordon attributes much of that to priests who didn’t keep journals or didn’t record these people, thus they “didn’t exist.”
The production incorporated live actors onstage, with videotaped interviews of Native Americans on several large screens from many different tribes around the country, including in New Mexico. The stagecraft also relied on imagined interviews with dead authors who recorded Native cultures in the 19th century. But the actors remain in contemporary clothes. They even acted out interviews running on the video screens, with production staff holding up signs indicating who each actor is supposed to be. It drives home the point that even the act of interviewing is constructed, an artifice.
Gordon collaborated with Native filmmakers Ramona Emerson and Kelly Byars, who are based in New Mexico, to film the interviews. We get some great insights from the subjects about the stupider questions they get about being Native American from people they encounter daily, such as “There are still Indians left alive?” “What are you?” “There are different Native languages?”
We hear what it’s like to have daily visitors traipsing through Taos Pueblo. As one woman asks: What would it be like to have people come to your house, take pictures of your door, take pictures of you? “Your house is like a museum,” says sculptor Dawning Pollen Shorty about living on the pueblo.
An electronic ticker hanging above the stage keeps track of each question asked in the play, catching those we may not even hear. We meet the actors from the get-go and they inform us the play is beginning. They never really leave the stage and they introduce the production staff, who work with their equipment in plain sight throughout the whole show. So the mechanics of constructing the play are right there in front of us.
I found the experience intriguing and maddening in equal measure. Gordon is showing us that much of what we know of history is a construct. He also shows us how artificial the interview process itself is, so he builds the work in front of us and tears it down simultaneously. Intellectually, I could appreciate the goal and the idea, but then I began to wonder: Then why do theater at all? Why this format if the end result is to make us question everything about it?
By the end of the show, we are left questioning any narrative or history. It’s a good reminder to question official history. But I wonder how much that technique undermines the whole effort to recover other narratives, such as those offered by the Native people in the filmed interviews.
It’s one thing to deconstruct something. It’s another to see it done onstage. I felt like a co-conspirator, participating in an artificial process, which, for good or for ill, can be really uncomfortable. Is Gordon saying it’s a fool’s errand to search for truth? I’m still not sure.