Review | Where Mohegan history meets Shakespeare


Most people will never have to contemplate, yet alone confront, the notion of losing touch with their native language. So when Mohegan playwright and performer Madeline Sayet steps on the Folger Theatre stage and relays that experience with wit, warmth and mournful reflection, her articulation of that erasure speaks volumes.

Language, Sayet underscores, is the foundation on which generation-spanning connections of culture and community are built. To forget one’s native tongue is to see such spiritual bonds broken down. When cultural genocide is the culprit for such erosion — the Mohegan language was washed away in waves of imperialist violence and assimilation — the tragedy is unimaginable.

In “Where We Belong,” an autobiographical solo show produced by the Folger in association with Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Sayet frames centuries of Mohegan history and colonialist oppression within her experience as a theater-maker who traveled to London in 2015 to study Shakespeare. Sayet, it would appear, was predestined for such introspection: She takes her middle name from Fidelia Fielding, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan language.

Yet it’s Sayet’s Mohegan moniker, Achokayis — which translates to “blackbird” or “the dark one who flies apart” — that informs the show’s more hypnotic flourishes. As Sayet finds parallels between the soaring expectations of that name and the transient nature of her artistic livelihood, production designer Hao Bai illuminates the set in ethereal, cloudlike imagery and composer Erik Schilke floods the space with his serene score.

For the most part, though, director Mei Ann Teo smartly leans on the potency of Sayet’s storytelling prowess. After first performing “Where We Belong” in 2019 at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Sayet debuted this staging of the play for a pandemic-era filmed production at Woolly Mammoth in 2021. While the shape of the show seems largely unchanged, Sayet’s personable presence deepens its impact as she connects with the audience in the Folger’s intimate Elizabethan Theatre, strolling up and down the aisle and locking onto theatergoers’ eyes.

Deploying an endearing brand of nervous energy, Sayet dons myriad accents and personae. Early in the show, she amusingly takes on a Swedish affectation to play a Stockholm border agent quizzing travelers from London on how they voted on the Brexit referendum. Sayet later imagines conversations with Mahomet Weyonomon, the 18th-century Mohegan leader who traveled to England to address the crown about his people’s plight, only to die of smallpox during his months-long wait for an audience and end up in a mass grave. Then there’s her sobering retelling of a trip to the British Museum, where she pressed an English academic on the institution’s reluctance for repatriation and got only condescension in return.

Sharp. Witty. Thoughtful. Sign up for the Style Memo newsletter.

Contextualizing her own place among storied ancestry, Sayet also recounts eye-opening parables involving such Mohegan figures as the tribal leader Uncas, the Presbyterian cleric Samson Occom and the medicine woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon (the performer’s great-aunt). Scrutinizing her own love for Shakespeare, Sayet considers the role the Bard’s work played in the assimilation education that valued his prose and verse over the language Mohegans used to pass down their own cherished traditions.

As Sayet recalls, she once directed a staging of “The Tempest” in which she presented Prospero and his shipmates as colonizers and the typically monstrous Caliban as an Indigenous character reclaiming his language. But what if her reading of Shakespeare as anti-colonialist was off the mark all along? By interrogating how Shakespeare is interpreted, Sayet taps into larger truths about American and British society’s collective failure to reckon with colonialism.

This treatise on how culture is preserved or suppressed resonates all the more in the Elizabethan Theatre, where the stage’s historic oak columns are juxtaposed against a contemporary set featuring striking bars of fluorescent light, cafe lights evoking the stars and swirling mounds of dirt representing the borders Sayet traverses. As presented in an institution dedicated to celebrating Shakespeare’s legacy, the gimlet-eyed perspective of “Where We Belong” feels right at home.

Where We Belong, written and performed by Madeline Sayet. Directed by Mei Ann Teo. Production design, Hao Bai; costumes, Asa Benally; music and sound, Erik Schilke. About 85 minutes. Through March 10 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington.


Source link

Leave a Comment