Standing ground 

Actress Lily Gladstone brings Indian Country to the stage

Lily Gladstone's first impulse to become an actress didn't stem from a desire to spur social change or to create a dialog about her American Indian culture. As a 5-year-old in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation, Gladstone watched "Battle for Endor" and thought what any kid from anywhere likely thought while watching the Star Wars spinoff: "I really wished I could be an Ewok," Gladstone says, laughing. "They were cute and they lived in really cool tree houses."

Gladstone, however, was old enough to realize that the closest she'd come to being a furry hunter-gatherer would be as an actor playing the part. Her family's move to Seattle seven years later landed her roles at a small community theater called Stone Soup Theatre, where the hope of becoming an Ewok evolved into a much broader dream about acting: the ability to disappear into all kinds of new and exciting characters. She began to notice that her experience as an American Indian affected her perspective on theater.

"When you're a child it's important to have those creative elements if they're tied to who you are culturally," she says.

click to enlarge Local actress and UM drama alumnus Lily Gladstone spent her undergrad years looking for ways to incorporate her American Indian culture into theater. This week she stars in the Montana Rep’s The Frybread Queen, a story about three generations of Navajo women coming face-to-face with their past. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Local actress and UM drama alumnus Lily Gladstone spent her undergrad years looking for ways to incorporate her American Indian culture into theater. This week she stars in the Montana Rep’s The Frybread Queen, a story about three generations of Navajo women coming face-to-face with their past.

Gladstone earned her bachelor's in acting from the University of Montana's theater program in 2008 as well as a Native American Studies minor. She's an alumnus of Montana Rep, Missoula's own professional touring company led by artistic director Greg Johnson, for which she gracefully pulled off the crotchety Mrs. Dubose in the 2009 production of To Kill A Mockingbird. This week, Gladstone acts in Montana Rep Missoula's production of The Frybread Queen, a collaboration with Native Voices at the Autry, a Los Angeles-based organization that focuses on American Indian playwrights. The play, written by Carolyn Dunn and directed by Jere Hodgin, also marks the first production in collaboration with Eagle Theater Works, an American Indian theater group helmed by Gladstone and supported by Montana Rep.

"The Rep is so dedicated to bringing great American stories to the stage," says Gladstone. "For a long time now Greg Johnson has realized that and wanted to bring Native American stories to the stage because that completes the picture."

Gladstone's experience with UM theater hasn't always been a piece of cake. When she was a sophomore, the drama department decided to produce Peter Pan, and the idea of it rubbed Gladstone the wrong way.

"I was nervous about how they were going to handle the natives," she says. "Everybody was assuming that I was going to get Tiger Lily, because my name's Lily and because I was the only native in the department. But I wanted to be in Proof which was the other show going on at the time."

Gladstone consulted her professors in Native America Studies. She told them she thought the theater department shouldn't do the play or, at the very least, that the natives should be taken out. Gladstone says NAS professor Wade Davies changed her mind, saying that performing Peter Pan might create a dialog about how natives have historically been portrayed in the arts.

"I was young and I was angry," she says. "But I realized that it's a historical piece, a part of theater's history and, changing it would be whitewashing."

In the end, she says, the show went on with the natives turned into non-descript islanders who couldn't really be tied to any one ethnicity.

"I can understand where they were coming from; things happened so quickly and the situation was a mess," Gladstone says. "But I think in retrospect if they could have found some way to keep the original text intact and create a discussion...

"It was such a cloudy situation and it got spun into maybe a bigger deal than it should have been," she adds. "A lot of people in the program didn't like the attention I called to it."

A few years later, the Peter Pan incident would come back to haunt Gladstone. After she graduated, Gladstone started working as a professional actor with a Seattle theater company called Living Voices. At the time, Living Voices was in its eighth year of producing several pieces focusing on cultural identity. Gladstone was cast in a piece about American Indian boarding schools, and she was happy to take the role since it had never been played by an American Indian actor before. At the last minute, however, the company also asked her to play the role of a Japanese woman in an internment camp, after which she'd be part of an audience Q&A. She was mortified.

"The date they booked me for was Asian Pacific heritage month in Seattle," Gladstone says. "I walked into this room and I was greeted by this Japanese man wearing a kimono and he had his grandmother's scrapbook from the internment camps out on the table. I was like, 'What am I doing here?'"

After the performance, Gladstone explained to the audience—many of whom were of Japanese descent—what her situation was. She says that the conversation took some surprising turns at that point, ranging from issues of blood quantum to concentration camps inspired by Navajo genocide.

"It started a discussion between this community that I'm not a part of and my own," she says. "It was nice. And since I couldn't share my own story about internment, the audience did."

Gladstone's current goals include finding an acting program where she can bring Blackfeet culture and language into contact with the theater of the oppressed–a form in which the audience engages with the actors as a way to represent social change. She says she would like to bring to the stage the idea of "Trickster"—the rule-breaking spirit of American Indian mythology—as a way to help American Indian students tell their stories.

Gladstone's played diverse roles that, at least from the outside, don't appear to spring from her cultural heritage. In addition to her role in To Kill A Mockingbird, she's played a prison guard on death row and in Stop Kiss she was both a wealthy Upper East Side woman and a single mother from the Bronx who worked her way through nursing school, in the same play. One day, even her childhood dream of becoming an Ewok could still come true. "It hasn't happened yet," she says smiling.

Still, it's when she talks about the moments in her acting career where culture meets the stage that Gladstone really lights up, like when she did a fancydance to Gil Scott-Heron's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised or when she did a solo piece called Grapefruit Indian, which explored derogatory terms. She's interested in how to redefine and rework the ways in which American Indians have been categorized.

"So much of who you are as a Native person on stage has been defined by non-natives up to this point," she says. "Who we are and what's changing politically and culturally in Indian Country, and what has been since contact, has to happen on our terms."

The Frybread Queen opens at UM's Masquer Theatre Friday, Sept. 17, and runs Saturday, Sept. 18, and Tuesday, Sept. 21, through, Saturday, Sept. 25, at 7:30 PM nightly. $16/$14 seniors/$10 children 12 and under.

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