A Conversation with Rhiana Yazzie
Playwrights' Center Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn recently connected with Affiliated Writer Rhiana Yazzie on her upcoming play Nancy, the Reagans, authenticity, and allure of the 80s.
Hayley: When you first told me you were going to write this play about Nancy Reagan you were a McKnight Fellow. You told me Nancy Reagan was a descendant of Pocahontas and you were going to write a play about it. I thought that’s amazing and I cannot wait to read this play. Once you had that initial idea, how did you start to write this play?
Rhiana: First, I started to scan the zeitgeist of what I knew of her. There were more compelling reasons to write about her than just the fact that she was Pocahontas' descendant.
So, there are many different kinds of experiences of being part of a tribal community. I come from a very specific kind of experience where my father spoke Navajo in the home to all our Navajo relatives. I went with him to ceremonies when I was a little girl. I was always going to the reservation with him. I had this deep, deep connection to myself as being a Navajo person. And as I left that experience, I experienced what it was like to be a Native person in other tribal communities. That's when I started to put together, like, “Oh this native experience is really different depending on how your tribe and its land got colonized.” And as a result of that, everything falls forward.
I was thinking about the experience of Nancy Reagan and because she doesn't have a lived experience of being Native—certainly not the kind of lived experience that I had growing up—there were other things stereotypically associated with Nativeness; the new age community and this sort of general idea about America and freedom and the natural man converge. Nancy was addicted to astrologers and new age things. She was incredibly superstitious and so was Ronald Reagan. They came out of those circles in Hollywood where they were getting astrological readings all the time and talking with psychics, kind of like what you would associate with like liberals, right? You wouldn't think there are these conservative, rich Republicans getting astrological readings. So, I started to make these connections with the way that the new age community has co-opted Nativeness. Sometimes the only image some people know of Nativeness is what new age people say about it.
In the 1980s, I remember clearly my mom saying that this Reagan policy had come through and it affected our health care. Treaties are the highest law of the land according to the Constitution. So, there are these obligations they're supposed to adhere to.
Also during the 80s, the seed for tribal casinos actually came to fruition. Gaming packs started and ironically Reagan was all for it because what he saw was economic independence, which on the other side of that coin is, “Oh, we can break all the treaties'' and, “You guys are going to have your little money-making thing. It doesn't matter whether or not you're even close to a metropolitan center, so you can have a casino but nobody can or will come to it.”
Also, a big thing that happened to my community was there was a Hopi/Navajo land dispute that was exacerbated by a Republican administration, well, by the U.S. government. It’s very complicated but that also started to get—I won't say it was resolved—it was pushed to an end by the Reagan administration so a lot of people were displaced and two tribes were pitted against each other.
At the same time, I remember as a little girl, there was that crisis with Ghaddafi. It scared me. As a little girl, listening to the news was incredibly terrifying because they would always talk about nuclear war. You remember, in the popular culture, that's what everyone was writing about and talking about; nuclear war. It scared me. And ironically, the uranium for these nukes came from a hundred mines on the Navajo reservation. The very last mine was closed during the Reagan administration; not because of him but during his administration.
And on top of it all, Nancy Reagan is a very strong woman. It is common knowledge she told Reagan to do everything. She dictated his schedule with her astrological readings. She wouldn't let him leave the White House on unfavorable days. She truly believed that she stopped a second assassination attempt because of that. And the Iran Contra crisis; do you remember how he didn't leave the White House for like four months? That was because Nancy wouldn't let him because the days were not favorable until February.
Hayley: I love everything that you have mined in this play. I love your plays because they always represent a constellation of different cultures—how they intersect and speak with each other. It’s incredible, particularly with this play. I love the way that you've created this entire map of all of these different cultures and people and how they're sitting in conversation with each other; particularly the women in the play. It seems like part of what you're also exploring in this play is around matriarchy and that conflict of traditional patriarchal power that seems to me was extremely prevalent—still probably in a lot of ways but certainly prevalent in the 80s and just how the women in your play are negotiating that power. Could you talk about the character Esmeralda and how that relates to the whole structure of the play?
Rhiana: Esmeralda is kind of modeled after my father— his generation. It was incredibly uncommon for a Navajo person of his generation to not be a fluent Navajo speaker or to have not gone to Indian boarding school. I was thinking about my father's contemporaries and I was thinking about all of these social service organizations that formed and the legislation that got passed around American Indian rights, like the Freedom of Religion Act passed one year after I was born which means I finally was free to be Native. A generation prior, the U.S. government went into tribal communities to create tribal governments that are modeled loosely on the U.S. government, which of course, we know is loosely modeled after the Iroquois.
Anyway, it was a patriarchal system so traditional leadership models, clan systems, clan mothers, and things like that were basically not recognized; tossed aside. And you had this generation of men who now were in charge of everything in relation to the U.S. government and their communities. Suddenly, there's this imposition of maleness and men having to take on a role that they hadn't had traditionally, in many cases. Not to say only women made choices but I mean it was a clear ecosystem of balance and women had much of the power in these matriarchies. So looking at the 80s—here you have this decade of money, power, decadence, maleness, and I just wondered how Native women in that generation struggled with the sudden loss of their power. And the way that Native men suddenly realized they had certain kinds of power and I won't say abusive power, but just like that, the lack of equilibrium. And in the 80s Native men could somewhat join the “boys club,” while Native women who traditionally had power, were shut out of it.
Hayley: Yeah, that's interesting. As you're framing it out, it seems like a lot of these deals were struck in the 80s, were struck by men, and largely around economics. Is that fair to say?
Rhiana: I mean it all starts from that 1934 American Indian Reorganization Act where there was just this blanket change in Indian Country as far as what leadership was accepted and supposed to look like and… Oh God, it's so, so fascinating because this is also where I start to see this idea of how some of the most oppressed people in the country can become the most complicit with white supremacy. It's that sort of special status that American Indians have in the American imagination that white settler colonialism cannot trump. The idea of freedom—the idea of the natural man—it all comes back to the American Indian. This is also why I think somebody like Nancy can find an American Indian relative in their history and then all of a sudden get all of the benefits of being American Indian—the street cred that the oppression of being Indian offers—while never actually having ever experienced any of that oppression, and while still having all of the privileges of white society. So, you get these moments—you know we've seen them in theater and film narratives—where somebody without resources is suddenly offered major resources and makes it a choice for their individuality and breaks with their tradition. You see that heartbreak of capitalism be complicit with white supremacy. So that's another dimension in the play with the characters who identify as American Indian.
Hayley: You have five women at the center of the story. In a lot of ways, you're looking at authenticity from these various angles. You use humor through all of it. Is it true that authenticity is another theme in the play?
Rhiana: Yeah it is, because I ask the question, “What is the valid American Indian experience?” I will say that out loud. I have questions. I’m not one of those folks who ascribe to the fact that there is a spectrum of American Indian experiences or what we now say “Indigenous.” I don't believe that. There's a UN definition of Indigenous. There's also lived experience. There's also historical trauma that creates big rifts in the ability for culture to be; to remain intact.
And that's why I say, I realized when I left New Mexico, there's a whole bunch of ways that tribal communities express themselves. In some tribal communities, based on their colonial history, they had longer experiences with white violence—like Nancy’s tribe. And then other tribes that have “relatively” new experiences—and I would say that for my community it's “relatively” new. And I asked that question.
The last couple of plays I’ve written asked that question about what is authentic. I asked myself that because I’m a woman of childbearing age, considering the importance of having a Native American partner because I am a descendant of people who survived genocide. And I’m also the first generation in my family to not speak Navajo fluently.
I see myself on this precipice where I’m looking at all of these different experiences. There are some tribal communities that have had multiple generations of not speaking their language but they are intact in many different ways. And then there are other communities that that experience is relatively new but there are enough people with the intact experience to kind of invalidate people with sort of a broken experience or an incomplete experience. So each character is expressing themselves in the way that they think an American Indian is authentic and they each have their own idea about what authentic is. The main character Esmeralda, her idea of what authentic is, ultimately gets undermined. When her definition is used on someone else it totally does not apply. In fact, it gets kind of perverted and it gets appropriated and thrown back in her face.
One of my favorite exchanges in the play is an Ojibwe man from Minnesota talking to a Navajo woman. He says she has more privilege because she's more phenotypical and he says he has less privilege because he's more white passing. Which is a ridiculous argument, right? You want to say that's stupid on the face of it. If you look more white or you display phenotype of whiteness, there are so many things you do not ever have to think about or worry about. But there is a segment of Native people who believe that because they're white, they're discriminated against—not by the general American public but by other Indians—and calling that racism. But that's not racism, that's lateral violence. And that accusation isn't just phenotypical Native people being laterally violent against a non-phenotypical Native—it's also a non-phenotypical Native being violent against a phenotypical Native, because ultimately that's anti-blackness; what they're displaying towards them. It's anti-darkness, anti-primitivism, and it's incredibly complicated. And it's an opportunity to sort of hash out a bunch of ideas that I have heard over the years around people justifying or invalidating experiences of being American Indian, and I’m not even talking about “Indigenous.”
Hayley: There's so much in your play. There are so many ideas. There's so much rich history. There are these amazing characters. You create these very human people that we relate to. There's also quite a bit of humor in the play even though you're talking about serious themes. It's a really funny play. How do you see humor functioning in your work?
Rhiana: The thing that caught me when I started to fall in love with theater was theater of the absurd. I was a weird kid. I read The Stranger in French when I was in seventh grade. I’m a weird kid [laughs] so I was reading Camus and Sartre. There's just something about that—that post World War II, what's the meaning of life? You know, this existentialism and absurdism that always made sense to me; the soup that created my life.
And I think that's where the comedy comes in because I often feel like I’m observing my life. I’m a character in a play. Like, “Are you seriously saying that? Can you hear yourself?” The inability to communicate, to me, is such a tragedy that I feel like I struggle with all the time. But it is funny. At the end of the day, you know, these miscommunications and inability to understand each other ends up being just comedic. Of course, I do like to take things out of context and put them in another context, so that's always kind of a fun surprise to have as well.
I think that love of absurdism and existentialism, it's ultimately what I feel like I’ve discovered. Who I am and what I do as a playwright is examine relationships. I think relationships all hinge on constellations and you have to take all of these things into context if you're going to actually understand a person. I find that so interesting—to interrogate relationships—because I feel like in real life we don't take into context a person's full constellation.
But in a play, I can show you their constellation and say, “This is why this person is like they are. This is how they're expressing their humanity. God, can't you give them a break?” Whereas in real life, it's like, “Oh, this person is this way. That person is that way.” And there's no deeper sense of, “Well, what's their historical background? What's their family background? What do they believe in? What’s their spirituality? How does that come into play?” and things like that. That's great.
Hayley: Let's talk about the 80s. You and I were both children of the 80s growing up in that world. You've said one of the things that excites you is getting into the aesthetics of the 80s and thinking about how that relates to the play as a whole. Tell me how you might theatricalize that.
Rhiana: The play starts off in Albuquerque in the 80s. I remember all the girls wanted to be the coolest looking cholas. That was the epitome of beauty where I was growing up. In Albuquerque, I didn't realize it at the time, but basically, everyone I was around was poor. I didn't realize some of these struggles that we had—even just cashing a check at the grocery store or waiting for these tortillas to get made at the grocery store because they were the cheapest thing—were all forming my understanding of the world. And as a little kid, because I didn't hit my teens until the 90s, I was seeing these juxtapositions of, at least on television, all of this wealth in big cities and then all of this struggling. When I contrast what I saw in films and television, it was like noise, and decadence, and shiny buildings. And then when I walked out my door it would be like quiet, and sand, and dust.
It didn't stop me from wanting to get lace gloves like Madonna [laughs] or... One of my favorite outfits: I got some bright pink stirrups and an oversized sweater that was like... Oh I would love to wear that again. There was this girl in school who was older. I think she was a year older than my brother. Man, she was the coolest! She was like a chola Molly Ringwall with her long button-up shirt going all the way up, buttoned up to her neck with a brooch in the middle of it.
I really want to see that kind of stuff in the play because it was such a specific kind of world. It was also the moment where those warehouse grocery stores started to come into being. I know you grew up in New York but we had tons of those...
Hayley: I know what you're talking about. I love the contrast of those worlds. You go out and you're seeing all you know; sand and dust and quiet. And then there's the glorification of the city and the money and all of that. You've captured those two worlds. You've created the opulence of Nancy Reagan’s world and then you also have Esmeralda and her daughter who are coming from that other world. There's this real, beautiful clash of worlds coming together through this play.
Rhiana: Yeah, God the 80s was such a strange, strange mix in certain rural areas. I won't say Albuquerque was a rural area. I mean, it's more rural than where I live here in Minnesota. At the time, it just felt like time got to us slower; changes got to us slower. But you could look into the future by watching television, wondering when it was going to get here.
Hayley: Obviously you're focusing on Nancy Reagan so you're focusing on the 80s but by looking at the 80s in that particular moment shines a light on everything that comes afterward. I found it illuminating, learning about all those alliances and packs that were created at that time, that I didn't know about before reading the play.
It was such a linchpin time. When you think about that moment where Chernobyl happened, which we now know was the catalyst for the fall of the Soviet Union, and also Nancy Reagan’s role in trying to convince Reagan to be known for being a president of peace rather than—everybody knows that terrible anecdote of Ronald Reagan, where right before a live feed he said something to the effect of, “The nukes are heading to Russia right now.” He would make these horrible jokes. The strange thing about Nancy—because I don't want to hate her because I think she had a lot of conflicting things going on with her—she convinced Reagan to not be as warlike as he wanted to be. And trying to influence him to actually go ahead and meet with Gorbachev and try to come to some deal over nuclear arms.
At the end of the day, I kind of feel sorry for her because she did all of this stuff and didn't get any credit. The only thing she was known for were the things that women are only allowed to be known for at that time, like what are you wearing, you know? What are you buying? It was weird. She ran everybody's horoscope to see if they would work well with Reagan. She ran Gorbachev's horoscope. It was her astrologer who was like these two could get along.
Hayley: I remember when you were developing this play at the Playwrights’ Center. You asked us to bring in an astrologer and so we brought in an astrologer as a dramaturg [she wasn’t a dramaturg]. It was amazing to see the impact on the play.
Rhiana: That's right. We had two astrologers. Yes, the astrology in the play is accurate. I’m trying to make it incredibly accurate
Hayley: What are you interested in working on this time around, as you approach the play?
Rhiana: In talking about all of these pieces and storylines, I want to make sure that each one has its arc in a way that's helpful to the main story and the main characters. It's really about the air traffic control of this constellation now so I really want to see how each of these things weave together, you know? I want to make sure things pay off if they were supposed to and tone some other things down if it's taking more space than the journey of our main characters. I really am inspired by this 80s look so I think bringing in a scenic designer so there's neon and a treadmill; things like that. When I think of those things I always think of them dramaturgically, as a device more so than just like, “Oh, that's cool. We saw that in the play.” I really want it to do as much work as everything else.
Hayley: I think that's going to be great having a designer come in earlier in the development of the process. It will help you think about how those particular devices or scenic elements can really help further propel the narrative and the whole world-building that you're creating. So you and I came to the Playwright’s Center pretty much at the same time which is now almost 15 years ago. What do you feel like it's being in this community as an artist and what have you learned? Or what has it been like to develop your work over time, at the Playwrights’ Center?
Rhiana: I sometimes feel like as an artist in this community, I miss a lot because I’ve got my head down on a different kind of mission. I have my theater company whose mission is to create meaningful pathways to performing arts for American Indian community and artists. I’m incredibly concerned about making work that speaks to a Native audience and that it doesn't have to be targeted towards a white audience. I think that's also the aesthetic that I bring with Nancy, because I think that there are so many ways to do theater as a Native person with Native people in mind that doesn't mean you can only talk about a very small set of values or experiences. So that's what I’m doing at the theater company. We've been having this racial reckoning in the wider American theater. It hasn't always felt good to work in those spaces and I think it felt better to work really specifically in Native community and so a lot of that was just like building blocks from scratch. So sometimes I just feel like I miss a lot because I’m so deep into this mission.
Hayley: I remember when you came here to the Twin Cities and we talked a lot about it and then you founded this company. And the work that you've done over the years has just been just incredible so congratulations; thank you. Thank you for doing that because it's not just about creating space for yourself. You've really been able to create space for a lot of other artists which is amazing.
Rhiana: Yeah, last night I was looking at a bunch of pictures over the years of my theater company and I was just amazed how many people I’ve worked with. It was just neat to see all the smiles. And it's funny because, like I know what I was thinking the whole time. I was always thinking this is really hard, you know? And we have these moments of joy when the production actually happens and you see the community coming together or somebody showing their family for the first time their writing; their acting. It's been really joyful.
I love being a midwife, doing that work, but it's also important to deliver your own kid every now and then; midwife yourself every now and then. But being at the Playwrights’ Center just keeps me on track. It's like a compass and I always know I can be a playwright there. I don't have to be an artistic director or advocate or BIPOC leader or filmmaker or anything. I can just be a playwright which is my first love. It's just like a touchstone. It's like recalibration every time I’m back to the Playwrights’ Center. I’m like, “Oh, I just got a good adjustment.”
Hayley: I’m so glad that you came here on a Jerome Fellowship. I’m so glad that we've had the chance to be friends and get the chance to work together for so many years.
Rhiana: Yeah, me too. I’m excited you're going to be dramaturging . You'll have to brush up on the astrology.
Hayley: I’ll get on my horoscope.
Rhiana: We should get the report for that week to see if it's a favorable week to have a workshop?
Hayley: Or what we need to do to make it favorable, since it's scheduled.
Rhiana: That's true. Yeah, I’m not like Nancy. I definitely believe there are ways to steer your fate. You are not just beholden to your stars.
Join us for an online reading of
NANCY by Rhiana Yazzie
Wednesday, April 7 at 7:00 p.m. CDT
The Ruth Easton New Play Series is supported by the Ruth Easton Fund of the Edelstein Family Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.