From My Seat in the House by Mari Lyn Henry
Presented by America Indian Artists Inc. (Amerinda) and based on true incidents in the history of lead-zinc mining in the tri-state areas of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, Miss Lead concerns the people of the American Indian nations who were relocated to the region on “various Trails of Tears.” When they were settled in these locations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) leased their property to several mining companies who removed the valuable ore and left behind “chat” piles of toxic waste.
The narrative is most compelling and educational, captures the essence of the conflicts and prejudices between “natives” and “whites,” illuminates the need for reconnection to one’s heritage and illustrates the exasperating denial of the owner of the mining company. He oversees the company and his family and, in particular, he has no guilt for the genetic, crippling or fatal illnesses that were the consequence of the lead-zinc mining activities. And most importantly it stresses the convincing case for restoring pride, justice and dignity to the Native Americans who were uprooted, maligned, humiliated and ignored.
A satirical first scene focuses on the production of a local PSA to deliver a Thanksgiving message and promote George McCartney’s philanthropy as the president of the Tri-State Mining Company. With his wife, two daughters and son beside him wearing paper Indian headdresses, he touts the advantages of life in Joplin, Missouri.
We notice that Katie, a college freshman, keeps trying to hide her blood red rash and the blisters on her hands. Suffering acute pain at the college, she has missed three weeks of classes. A colonoscopy spots the symptoms of both Crohn’s disease and celiac sprue, and the blood work reveals serious life threatening allergies to peanuts, cashews, soy, wheat, corn and eggs. Her know-it-all father insists a cure must be found, her realistic mother shops for special foods like rice cakes and sunflower seed butter. Katie determines to write a play in her journal.
She has also met Rebecca, a Quapaw nurse, while undergoing tests. Ethnic stereotypes are scrutinized when Anne, Katie’s fair-skinned mother, doesn’t look like her Native American grandmother. That ancestry can be seen in her younger sister and brother, but Katie can always pass for ‘white.’
Rebecca eloquently tells her what it means to admit you are ‘native.’ “You can forget where your great-grandma came from, you can abandon her culture, her customs, her prayers, her ceremony, your heritage and you can certainly pass for white. But when you do, just know that you’re only helping the United States accomplish what it couldn’t quite finish one hundred years ago.”
There is a constant flashback between the present time and the start of the Second world war. Sixty years later the Quapaw hire attorneys to sue the Tri-State Mining Compnay, claiming there was no legal authority to mine on their lands.
In a very touching scene between mother and daughter, Anne gives her a beautiful beaded medicine bag crafted by her grandmother. In a metaphorical dream sequence, Katie wins the title of Miss Lead, the bag is replaced with a sash. Before the turkey can be served, George decides with his son and heir to upgrade his image with another tasteless commercial about declaring a war on cancer. By definition this means the men will don fatigues, dark glasses and point AK-47s at the viewers in a “pow, pow.”
Dinnertime and Aunt Mallory from Dallas brings her Tofu casserole to the table. She has the same denial problems as her brother. She insists that Katie eat some of the casserole, unaware it is soy-based. In the ICU, where Katie is attached to life support, her thoughtless father asks Rebecca if she is a plaintiff in the lawsuit!
There are some structural problems in the script with a constantly shifting timeline between the present and 1941. Expositional scenes could have been trimmed, the ghosts of Fred and his wife Ruth in Chuck’s hospital room provide very little insight except for a song with guitar accompaniment.
The set has to represent three separate areas for simultaneous actions – the front yard and a pile of dirt and shovel where an EPA rep is trying to get a lead level and where Fred (in 1940) is constantly digging for ore; the well-stocked kitchen serves both sets of characters. There was a credibility problem with the hospital area. Post anesthesia, Katie wanders in the corridors; George doesn’t know what to call an IV mobile unit and when the son visits his sister he walks behind the bed. That is impossible to do if you have ever seen a hospital bed.
The casting is most impressive with an ensemble of actors who are descendants of Native American tribes. Standouts are Tanis Parenteau as Katie, Michelle Honaker as Robyn, the younger sister, Elizabeth Rolston as Rebecca and her mother, Brett Hecksher as Chuck, and Nancy McDoniel in the role of Aunt Mallory. Both the playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle and director Madeline Sayet are equally proud of this heritage.
59e59 Theaters, January 16 – January 26, 2014
*Photos: Steve Bartel