Where Do Dreams Live?

Misdemeanor Dream, directed by Muriel Miguel. Photograph: © 2022 Richard Termine.

In Misdemeanor Dream, a new play presented at La MaMa by the performance collective Spiderwoman Theater, earlier this spring, Indigenous fairies sing, dance, tell stories, and commune with spirits from another realm. These spirits are a pre-recorded cast of otherworldly beings that appear virtually on screens suspended above the stage, their figures seemingly broadcasted from another dimension whose setting reveals little detail beyond the presence of the performers themselves. Meanwhile, the onstage cast weaves in and out of a set made up of a cardboard tree blooming with leaves made from patterned clothing, a membranous tunnel encircled in Christmas lights, and a cascade of tapestries. This environment is improvisational, the labor of its making left apparent. It’s a space actively under construction, defiantly unreal. This is a dream world, but it’s a collective dream. About halfway through the play, a fairy in a gold conical bra and dollar store tutu croons a question into the ether,

“Where does love live? Where do dreams live?”

They address the audience like a melancholic lounge singer in a world awash in pink light, their song sequence wedged into a dialogue that mixes together the languages of the many different tribal nations and communities of the play’s cast––the performers never denote which languages they are speaking––with English in a lingual back and forth that continues throughout the entire performance.” Misdemeanor Dream treads through oppositional logics; Indigenous/foreign, non-English/English, past/present, virtual/material, dreams/waking, Indigenous/settler. But in this performed world, the cast pulls these pairings apart and wriggles in between, creating a new space, a third space. This third space is chaotic, collaborative, and exuberantly evasive, skirting binary hierarchies and destabilizing attempts to uniformly characterize these performed experiences of Indigeneity. This destabilization is furthered by the non-linear way that these stories are being told. Spiderwoman Theater eschews traditional plot structure in their work, instead composing performances with a technique they pioneered known as “story weaving,” they define as “stories, images, sound, movement and music…a three-dimensional tapestry which is embodied in space and becomes the theatre production.” In Misdemeanor Dream, story weaving reinforces the notion that we are viewing the ancestral, inherited, and personal memories of others. Like our own memories, these recollections appear onstage as glimpses, meshes of the past that are capable of haunting you and restoring you in equal measure.

*

My arms and legs are woven through the limbs of my grandparents and we’re all sticky with my nightmare sweat. It’s an early July morning in Phoenix, heat on our skin because I’m draped on them with the easy acceptance of a child who knows that they should be wherever these two people are. We live away from where they grew up, Kansas and Oklahoma, and away from a Cherokee tribal community. We plant ourselves on each other, the cadence of their voices more familiar than my own and I can hear them even now when I try to. My papa plucks me from bed after I wake them up with my cries. He has nightmares too; so does my mom. My grandma says that he outruns bears in his dreams. The bedroom I sleep in is the bedroom that their daughters slept in as children, a window facing the front yard’s carob tree where we harvest the exoskeletons of cicadas during their summer return.

*

Spiderwoman Theater was founded in 1976 by Muriel Miguel, its original company including both of Miguel’s sisters, Gloria Miguel and Lisa Mayo, along with a diverse company of women performers. Spiderwoman Theater characterizes its own evolution as “[springing] out of the feminist movement of the 1970s and the disillusionment with the treatment of women in radical political movements of the time.” Their work is founded on the practice of layering Indigenous storytelling, music, dance, and clothing with Western theater conventions, drawing on personal histories to generate new performances. Misdemeanor Dream restages events from the lives of its Indigenous cast, each actor bringing elements of humor and sadness into distinct recollections of family, culture, and colonialism. Onscreen, ancestors and spirits transmit Indigenous creation stories, a reestablishment of knowledge that has been severed. These onscreen beings look like apparitions of ancestors and also like outsized manifestations of user avatars from an intertribal message board, two different types of spirits I seek out when I need to. One performer talks about being bribed by their Southern Baptist grandmother to attend church as a child, recalling how their father would interrupt this manipulation, arguing that if you have something to say to Creator, just to go outside and speak it. The other performers onstage watch this monologue with a kind of disbelieving intensity, the implication being that this feels too easy—just go in the front yard and speak your piece to sky, to earth, to ground?

*

Summer in Phoenix again, late summer, and we bring ice chests to the funeral. I rub the ice on my face and it mixes with my dried-out salt skin. My papa died just a few days before. We inter his ashes in the military graveyard, where my grandmother joins him a year from now. The service is short. After, fuzzy speakers play “Amazing Grace” in Cherokee, words I don’t understand over a melody I can hum. Who am I without you? How should I be Cherokee without you? To whom do I belong when you are gone?

*

Misdemeanor Dream is a reference, of course, to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though the only resemblance is its cast of Pucks and tricksters. When Shakespeare wrote about Oberon and Titania around 1600, my Cherokee ancestors were experiencing apocalyptic, seismic change, living through the first centuries of colonial contact. Misdemeanor Dream’s script is filled with the languages of the tribal nations and communities to which its Indigenous cast belongs, a conscious resurfacing of that which was suppressed. Dance and cuts of pop music tether the audience in the absence of translation, snatches of clubby bliss suffusing sometimes painful memories. This refusal to provide translation is generative—it tempts the audience towards frustration and demands to be listened to regardless of understanding.

Another fairy recalls moving to Montreal, away from their home community, learning to speak in French, and then English, as a child. They describe becoming obsessed with Julia Roberts’s curly hair and big smile, paraphrasing lines from Pretty Woman. The fairy’s performance of this transmission of speech and culture seems to capture Roberts’s trademark exuberance, the responding exuberance of a child falling in love with a cinematic idol, and the wry self-reflection of a child grown. This story captures how the longstanding practice of centering colonial ideals over Indigenous knowledges continues to be insidiously perpetuated. Though Misdemeanor Dream wants us to reckon with the ways in which colonialism still affects the lives of Indigenous peoples, its layering of humor, music, and language makes this reckoning feel restorative. Onstage, an actor calls out “Wado!” and I twist in my seat—Cherokee, does anyone else in the audience hear it? It is too dark for me to see the faces of others, so I whisper it back to myself, testing the script in my mouth.

*

Where our name comes from: Ashhopper and Betsy Hair, followed by their son ᏡᏡ, tlu-tlu, named for the martin bird, a bird that lives in Georgia where his parents were born, a bird that also lives in Oklahoma, where his parents were removed to, where they rebuild after their lives are rended open, his English name is Martin Hopper, a new last name, and he and his wife, Ruby, have a son named Martin Hopper, too, Martin Truman Hopper, brother to Woodrow Wilson, Pauline Dixie, and Dona Kay, Cherokee names, third space names, names in hiding, shared with presidents and the Southern United States, Martin Truman Hopper, son, brother, husband of Darlene, father to David, Janet, and Marcia, grandfather to Jennifer, Logan, and Siera

*

Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel, and Muriel Miguel, who were all born in Brooklyn and are of Kuna and Rappahannock ancestry, describe themselves as “City Indians,” their patchworked artistic methodologies perhaps mirroring the experience of Indigenous people raised away from their communities, scraps of incomplete stories sewn together anew. The cast members of Misdemeanor Dream belong to different sovereign nations but find a common purpose here in performing a shared desire to recuperate what has been stolen. Intergenerational knowing is reforged through the ageless beings onscreen, who talk about a time before our own time, but also through the presence of Gloria (onstage) and Muriel (as director), who have been creating performance since 1976. At 95 years old, the depth of Gloria’s experience reverberates through the embodied power of even her slightest movements and vocal shifts. She sits on the side of the stage for the majority of the performance while a helper, wearing stagehand black, sits behind her, softly prompting her speech with lines from the script. Misdemeanor Dream was co-created by Muriel Miguel, Penny Couchie (the production’s choreographer and co-artistic director of Aanmataagzi in Nbissing/Nipissing First Nation), and vocal choreographer Imelda Villalon. Couchie’s choreography builds the assistance of other cast members into any stage direction that requires Gloria to move seats, an arrangement that honors the well of knowledge that she brings to the cast. There’s an interconnectedness to the way that the performers join their voices and bodies, a sense of kinship that asserts a value of care that feels fundamentally Indigenous—an assertion that we are most powerful when we create the conditions to care for each other. Seated, watching the rest of the fairies dance, Gloria’s celestial silver jingle dress makes a tiny chorus of bells as she waves her arms to answer their movements.

*

Are your stories Cherokee creation stories? You weren’t allowed to speak Cherokee as a child and whatever you know about how our people were first created you don’t share with me now, though your chest cradling my head when we embrace, your deep voice rumbling against my cheek, tells me something about us that I still haven’t learned the word for. You tell me about Oklahoma. You tell me about fights, getting run off of or kicked out of somewhere, an Indigenous cowboy never explaining who you ran from or where you ran to. You tell me that before you were born, boys were brought into the forest and scratched on their chests with bear claws, to give them courage, maybe. Or, you’ll turn to me and ask what I remember about the Trail of Tears. Our family creation stories start with removal and end with us talking and joking on the couch, an arc of survivance within a continuum, but if we talk about what it was like before the wound, before our ancestors were strewn across these lands and forced to walk, then we have to imagine an alternate world without this wound. Imagine a world without a rupture, but would we find each other in it?, hold me, holding me, and I say tell me again, tell me everything.

After you’re gone, I wonder—are there bears in Georgia? In Oklahoma? Where does bravery come from?

*

Towards the end of the performance, a barrage of tricksters imparts messages to the cast in rapid succession. First, Lynx Woman, whose name, unlike many of the other virtual figures, is stated when she appears onscreen, holds her new daughter and feels afraid. She’s just given birth, her voice trembling as she explains that all she can think now is, “What if? What if? What if?” I hear this as a refrain emerging in the wake of harm perpetrated against Indigenous peoples. Lynx Woman disappears after her questions, though the specter of “what if” immediately manifests again, as another figure enters the screen, a trickster who stares directly into the audience, drawling, “Just because I don’t have children, doesn’t mean I can’t have children.” These two moments of dialogue are intertwined by proximity and their evocation of a creeping sense of dread, a visceral warning that, here, we have to anticipate what future harm might be done. Here, the echoing horror of stolen families, lands, and cultures are so close together that it’s breathless. Here, I’ll do anything to keep you, I’ll change my name, I’ll speak my language in secret, and everything I tell you I’ll tell you in whispers. Onstage, performers shudder and dance, while they listen to these two virtual spirits. Fear is a tool, but so is joy.

In a quiet voice, Gloria Miguel speaks the performance’s last line towards the audience. She tracks the curves of her life as a 95-year-old Indigenous woman, naming the Great Depression, World War II, Covid-19, and racism as survived malignancies. She is three years older than my papa would be—as she puts it, “an elder Elder.” She states that there is work that still needs to be done, more care, more knowledge, more celebration of the work that has been done already. Spiderwoman Theater’s stage shimmers with magic and ceremony, merging the speculative, the collective, and the remembered with our waking thoughts. From this polyphonic storytelling, an expansive definition of Indigenous survivance emerges. That expansiveness allows each speaker’s Indigeneity to be explored in its full complexity, in defiant delight of easy explanations that conceive of Indigenous identities, cultures, or histories in a linear way. There is no end to the inherited legacies of colonialism, just as there is no end to our peoples, just as there will be no end to our survival. We continue, and, without a fixed end, we recover boundless space to reclaim what has been lost. Gloria’s concluding imperatives seize that question of “what if,” and moves it into an emancipatory, imaginative space, an Indigenous dream world where new questions are posed: “What if we laugh?” “What if we sing?” “What if we dance?” “What if we build and build and build and build?”

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