Photo by Tatiana Ronderos

Photo by Tatiana Ronderos

Cedars is a short play of vignettes, presented in La MaMa’s intimate First Floor Theatre. Contemporary poetry and prose, written by Native American authors of many Nations, has been adapted by director, June Prager, into scenes performed by five Native American actors – each playing several characters. Beautifully crafted masks (created by Roger Fernandes) are used by the actors when they are playing whites and representing bureaucrats and America itself.

“I walk in two worlds with one spirit”, a character (played by Wolfen de Kastro) states. He repeats the line and a hot blast of air or cold splash of water hits you in the face. Can one walk in two worlds with one spirit? Can it be done, but with difficulty? How precarious is that walk? Many of the works in Cedars address this hope – to be all of one’s selves in all of the places we go. Not changing hats or more importantly face.

The five actors (Joan Henry, Wolfen de Kastro, Alana LaMalice, Matt Langer, John Scott-Richardson) thoughtfully move from one character and vignette to another carrying the audience along gracefully. The themes explored are familiar; longing, disenfranchisement, co-opted culture, police brutality, ancestors, mixed heritage, drunkenness, street life, rez (reservation) life, ceremony… all presented with humor, honesty and sincerity. The actors have great stage presence and are very adept at transitioning, often before our eyes, from one character to another. There is some traditional singing and dancing but this is not a play about traditional American Indian music and dance but about contemporary Native American thoughts and perspectives.

All of the actors sing, and they all have strong melodic voices. Joan Henry, however, stands out in a moving, cry-turned-song rendition of Amazing Grace sung in Tsalagi (Cherokee). This performance, along with Henry’s portrayal of a mother’s anguish when she hears that the officer who killed her young son was acquitted, are so exquisitely real it feels we are watching a deeply personal, private moment and that, maybe, out of respect, we should turn our heads.,

Cedars pokes fun at whites, and that is fun. Fun, funny, disarming, truthful, a little embarrassing, but never rancorous, though we know there is plenty of reason for rancor. It also educates. The story of Custer is old, but I am certain many have not heard it told the way it is told in this piece.

There is a soundtrack playing when the audience enters the theatre and during some of the transitions. The traditional pieces are good but the parts of the soundtrack that are electronic, synthesized are confusing. Words are  spoken, or sung sparsely, but they can not be made out. The electronic music seems like it wants to evoke disco, or something, but it comes across as muzak and left me wondering what song is that?

The masks took awhile to understand. In the first scene in which they are used, it is not clear why masks are worn, or why one is gold and one is white. That does become clear. The mask “America” wears while on trial is gorgeous and deeply symbolic on many levels.

I recommend seeing Cedars. I, for one, am glad these five actors and ten authors are walking in my world, and bringing their spirits’ so fully with them.

Cedars: written by Martha Brice, Joseph Bruchac, Alex Jacobs, Molly McGlennen, Tiffany Midge, Deborah A. Miranda, William Michael Paul, Evan Pritchard, Gail Tremblay, Arthur Tulee; directed and adapted for the stage by June Prager;

Presented by La MaMa in association with Mirage Theatre Company and Amerinda Inc.

Performed by: Joan Henry, Wolfen de Kastro, Alana LaMalice, Matt Langer, John Scott-Richardson

Composer: Charles Upham; Mask Designer: Roger Fernandes; Associate Director: Jason Marx; Production Director: Russ Jennings; Lighting Design: Ellie Engstrom

At LaMaMa First Floor Theatre 74A East 4th St, (646) 430-5374; January 22-February 1, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:00pm, Running time: 90 mins