February 1, 2023

McCarter Theatre Presents The 1491s’ “Between Two Knees”; Play Blends Indigenous History with Mel Brooks-Style Humor

“BETWEEN TWO KNEES”: McCarter Theatre Center presents “Between Two Knees.” Written by The 1491s, and directed by Eric Ting, the play runs through February 12 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above, back row (from left): Justin Gauthier, James Ryen (behind the parasol), Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Rachel Crowl, Wotko Long, and Jennifer Bobiwash. Front row: Derek Garza and Shyla Lefner. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“That was like three plays in one act,” Larry, portrayed by Justin “Jud” Gauthier, quips at the end of the first act of Between Two Knees. The play started performances January 31 at McCarter.

A January 26 “Director’s Cut” offers a glimpse into the rehearsal process (as the production entered tech week). A bright red curtain; Regina Garcia’s scenery; and Elizabeth Harper’s unabashedly, artfully gaudy lighting suggest that theater itself — especially from Vaudeville to the mid-20th century — will be satirized.

As a perk of membership at McCarter, the audience is given an opportunity to watch a brief excerpt until the actors are dismissed for a break. Subsequently, McCarter’s Director of Artistic Initiatives Julie Felise Dubiner co-hosts a discussion and Q&A with Director of Production Dixie Uffelman.

Written by the Intertribal sketch comedy troupe The 1491s, Between Two Knees blends Native American history with humor that multiple cast and production team members liken to that of Mel Brooks. Eric Ting directs the production.

The 1491s are Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota-Diné), Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee), Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca-Ojibwe), Ryan RedCorn (Osage Nation), and Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota).

The troupe’s viral YouTube videos, which they have been creating since 2009, showcase work that their website describes as “satirical and absurd comedy.” All five members are involved in Hulu’s award-winning series Reservation Dogs.

“We feel very privileged to put this play up at McCarter,” Pensoneau states in an email. “We like to think that for every harrumph and sidelong glance and restless turning in the grave, there are at least as many mild chuckles and one or two guffaws.”

A McCarter press release remarks that the play, whose title partially refers to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, “takes us from the forced reeducation at Indian boarding schools, through World War II, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the 1973 takeover at Wounded Knee, and maybe even breaks time itself.”

Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen extols the show’s “incredible story of family and community,” adding that it “speaks to the power of comedy as a powerful tool of resistance, fostering resilience, and empowering healing.”

Dubiner has been the dramaturg for the play since its inception. It originally was commissioned through American Revolutions, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) program that commissions and develops plays about “moments of change in American history,” Dubiner explains.

Asked whether it was a challenge for The 1491s to go from writing YouTube sketches to a full-length play, Dubiner replies, “I don’t know if it was that much of a transition for them, because the first act is almost like a sketch comedy show” in the vein of Monty Python and Mel Brooks (especially History of the World, Part I). “It’s structured in these shorter bursts. The second act follows a melodrama pattern.”

Dubiner adds that her role in the play’s development largely has entailed finding the “balance between too much stuff, and not enough stuff.” She remarks, “The amazing thing to me, as a dramaturg, is that the story hasn’t really changed at all from what they first sketched out in their first workshop in Ashland all those years ago.”

“It’s the story of this couple, and their children, and what happens to them,” Dubiner continues. “Through this sort of wacky family drama, you understand what happened — in a broad stroke — in American history. But the script has gotten a lot tighter; the pieces match up better.” Later she adds, “But it’s still very silly!”

Dubiner offers that the play’s development has been “more collaborative than a lot of other projects.” She is quick to emphasize that the “actors have contributed tremendously to figuring out how the thing works.” She adds that Ting has been a “tremendous dramaturgical director on this.”

Asked how he approaches the play as a director, Ting is quick to emphasize, “I am not Native American. My parents were
immigrants from China, so I’m Chinese American. When The 1491s and I first met, we wanted to make sure that this was the right fit, and that I could help them achieve their vision for this piece.”

Ting sees his function “through the lens of ‘servant leadership.’ My role is to make possible what is sometimes the very impossible vision of the playwrights — to make sure that we are honoring their particular tone, and their sensibilities. I see myself as creating spaces where all of the collaborators can feel ownership and agency in the development and creation of the piece.”

He adds that Between Two Knees is a work that “benefits from a plurality of points of view. That’s the kind of space that I work very hard to nurture.” Ting recalls his leadership of a Shakespeare theater. He observes that the majority of Shakespeare’s plays contained “both comedy and tragedy. The intention behind that was to be able to feel both the heights of the comedy, and the depths of the tragedy — by putting them up against each other.”

“That is also the truth of this piece, and I think that’s the truth of this kind of comedy,” Ting adds. “The size of the laughter is tied so utterly to the depths of the trauma,” that these seemingly opposing or contradictory elements invite a level of “understanding of lived experience, in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise perceive.”

Gauthier says that Larry, “for all intents and purposes, is the narrator of the story.” Gauthier describes the character as the “embodiment of The 1491s themselves.” He remarks, “There’s a popular meme, in Indigenous social media, that says,They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.’ That’s my feeling of this show.”

He posits that Larry “knows that there’s a fifth wall out there somewhere — and that’s why he’s constantly breaking the fourth wall. He’s looking to break through to the audience, to invite them in: ‘Look at what happened to our people; look how we navigated the tragedy of the Indigenous experience, in dealing with colonization. But also, there’s something good in here. There’s a lot of heart, there’s laughter, there’s tragedy … there’s silliness.’”

Of Ting, Gauthier says, “Working with him is supremely collaborative. He pushes us to maintain a drive through the show.” Gauthier adds that Ting has an “incredible creative mind” and is “very human in his approach with the actors — always very giving in terms of time to dig into a scene, or a character’s action within a scene.”

Shyla Lefner portrays two characters: Young Irma, who was stolen from her family, and integrated into the boarding school; and Irene, a healer. Lefner describes Irma as a “strong, young woman who has had to have unfathomable trauma, and has to fight through it.” Lefner adds that Irma is a “powerhouse who powers through all this trauma, and all these institutions that were sent to lay her in the ground…. It’s that power that carries throughout the rest of the story.”

Irene “had a distance from her people in the beginning of her life, so she is reestablishing herself with the Tribe.” Of both Irma and Irene, Lefner observes, “They’re both powerful women, but in their own distinct way. Irma’s physically out there, in the world … willing to put down roots. Irene is a healer — putting down roots in her own way, but she’s come up against a wall, where she’s had to make the choice: ‘How can I push further, to be of service?’”

Like Gauthier, Lefner praises Ting, describing him as a “caregiver, such a leader, such a wonderful director to create space in a room for your voice.” She adds that Ting and The 1491s “have a wonderful comic language with each other, and it was important to have someone like Eric, who understands their comedy.”

Lefner, who describes the other actors as “my family,” appreciates that Rasmussen has “created an open room where we all can make suggestions.” She remarks that the play is “taking leaps and bounds here at the McCarter. It’s exciting, because we’ve had the time in the room, and the support of the institution. She adds that the show has  “come together quite beautifully here.”

Produced by McCarter Theatre with Seattle Rep, in association with Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Yale Repertory Theatre; and directed by Eric Ting, “Between Two Knees” will play  through February 12 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. McCarter’s website notes that parental discretion is advised for strong language and themes; the play is recommended for ages 15 and up. For tickets or additional information, visit McCarter.org.