NATIVE RIGHTS STORY –Theatre students from the University of Michigan and Lake Superior State University team up with the Sugar Island, Michigan-based Anishnaabe Theatre Exchange to present 50 Cents a Pound, written by Bay Mills playwright and actress Rebecca Parish, June 1, on the LSSU Arts Center stage. From left are Wazhinguda Eli Horinek, Michael Oakes (LSSU), Magdelyn Miller, Zach Kolodzeij, Tomantha Sylvester (LSSU), and Shaunie Lewis. Sylvester, from Corunna, Mich., is general studies major with concentrations in business and fine arts. Oakes, from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., is majoring in fine arts studies with concentrations in theatre, writing, and web design and management. (Photo by John Diehl)
Lake Superior State University theatre and writing students spent most of May collaborating with University of Michigan faculty and students and the Sugar Island, Michigan-based Anishnaabe Theatre Exchange on projects that culminated with a June 1 stage production in LSSU’s Arts Center.
The collaboration began two years ago when theatre professors Anita Gonzalez from the University of Michigan and LSSU’s Spencer Christensen crossed paths during a production at the Kewadin Casinos DreamMakers Theater.
“Prof. Gonzalez came to the Sault to work with local Anishinaabe tribes on stories and a performance concerning issues of domestic violence and assault,” said Christensen. “We were able to share several meals together and attend a subsequent performance with four LSSU theatre students.”
The connection evolved into LSSU theatre students joining Gonzalez and the Anishinaabe Theatre Exchange – formed this past winter – for writing, screenwriting, choreography, and cultural workshops. The three-week session, hosted on Sugar Island at the Mary Murray Culture Camp by the Sault Tribe, explored Anishinaabe people, customs, and issues of Native fishing rights. LSSU creative writing professor Mary McMyne also brought her students into the workshops.
All the work led up to what was billed as an evening of performance and dialogue held June 1 on the Arts Center stage on Lake State’s campus.
This included an original production of 50 Cents a Poundby Bay Mills playwright and actress Rebecca Parish. It featured Bay Mills fishermen Tom Malloy Sr. and Jim LeBlanc describing their resistance to those who were determined to stop them from exercising fishing rights under the 1836 Ceded Territory Treaty. Bay Mills Community College student Joe Medicine delivered text describing the history of fishing rights, along with performances by LSSU theatre students Michael Oakes and Tomantha Sylvester.
The evening also featured excerpts from the The Frybread Queen by Native American playwright Carolyn Dunn, in which characters came together and shared recipes after a tragedy. Afterwards, performers spoke with the audience about domestic violence and suicide within Native communities.
“Your school has a large Native population to work with as well as a number of Native American students who are already involved in theatre classes,” said Gonzalez. “LSSU offered us an artistic base and generously hosted us during the five days of rehearsal leading up to the stage production.”
Future collaborations will tap the Anishnaabe Theatre Exchange to connect University of Michigan theatre, the Cultural Department of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Lake Superior State University, and Bay Mills community members with Native communities throughout the upper Great Lakes region, including an open invitation to those in Northern Ontario First Nation communities.
“The biggest thing is that we hope to continue to develop performance events that speak to social concerns and histories of the Anishnaabe people,” said Gonzalez. “I plan to have performers from this exchange come to Ann Arbor to present stories and explain their process. I would like to develop work with the community for performances at Bay Mills, Kewadin, and LSSU.”
“This is the beginning of a sustained collaborative effort between LSSU Theatre, U of M, and the Sault and Bay Mills tribal communities,” said Christensen. “It’s imperative that we allow space for and celebrate the voices of the Anishinaabe people in our region. We look forward to the next phase of the journey.”