ASHLAND — It’s riotously funny, often touching and amazingly produced.
But while “Between Two Knees,” a world premiere play being performed in the Thomas Theatre stage, dazzles, it also offends. With gobs of humor, it politely lays a guilt trip on white people for the history of injustices against Native Americans.
The play’s title references two events at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in North Dakota: the 1890 massacre of more than 250 men, women and children were killed by U.S. troops, and the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation.
The play delights with its biting humor, including some outspokenly intended to make non-Indians squirm and reflect. There’s also plentiful injections of laughs where the authors mock Indian stereotypes and other Indians. But at times the play exaggerates and stretches the truth of the very real historic mistreatment of Native Americans and the U.S. government’s failure to honor treaties.
From the 1491s
The world premiere is the creation of a group that calls themselves the 1491s, an obvious reference to the year before Columbus and the first group of Europeans arrived in America.
A poignant story weaves through the play, the story of a baby rescued from the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. The baby returns as Isaiah, a young man in an appallingly oppressive Catholic Indian boarding school. There he meets Irma, and together they escape. Years later, they reappear. Derek Garza and Shyla Lefner are the young Isaiah and Irma while April Ortiz and Worko Long are the older couple.
Character changes are frequent and nicely done. Lefner and Garza reappear, for example, she as a doctor, he as Isaiah and Irma’s grandson in a touching scene. But making the most chameleon-like changes are James Ryen and Rachel Crowl, who transform their personalities into a maze of characters. Crowl, most memorably, is a New Age guru, but she’s also an evil priest, television reporter and more. Ryen dizzyingly morphs from Mother Superior to George Washington, among other characters.
Laughter with a bite
Effective, too, is Justin Gauthier as Larry, the play’s narrator. He’s rip-roaring funny with his deadpan manner. The jokes fly. Much of the humor is laugh-out-loud tickle-the-silly bones funny, but some is nasty and biting. Most of the time I laughed uproariously, other times I sat mute and not amused. The finale is clever, but if the chants had been used by whites against Indians, Jews, blacks or Hispanics, it would be vilified as pig-headed racism.
Still, there much to appreciate and admire. A major part of the play’s dynamic appeal is its incredible staging. Director Eric Ting and his team take full advantage of the Thomas Theatre’s inherent intimacy to create a play that is routinely visually breathtaking.
“Between Two Knees” is a play that bites and stings, but it also tells a story. It is a play is worth seeing. As Ting points out in his program notes, “the record of history is merely a point of view.”