At the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., you can put on a pair of headphones and listen to an Anishinabe Indian chief singing about spring at the turn of the century. This extraordinary experience is possible because ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore, working on behalf of the Smithsonian, spent a good portion of her life lugging a large Victrola recorder up and down the rivers of Minnesota and Wisconsin, encouraging Native American musicians to sing directly into the microphone. Densmore recorded thousands of songs, and as a result is considered by many to be an American hero.
To playwright Marci Rendon, however, the Frances Densmore legacy is decidedly less impressive. As Rendon points out in her new play, Song Catcher, premiering at the Great American History Theatre, American Indian women spent their whole lives paddling canoes up and down these same rivers and didn't get lauded in the history books for their fortitude and bravery. And anyone who wants to can attend a powwow in the Phillips neighborhood and hear traditional American Indian singing, live. Who needs a recording?
Then there's the matter of spirituality. To indigenous people, traditional songs are a means of keeping the ancient spirits and traditions alive; the idea of "recording" them, Rendon suggests, is absurd, if not sacrilegious. To store them on tape in a museum is to rip them from their cultural context and render them meaningless. Far from keeping these songs alive for posterity, this is a kinder murder.
All of these themes and more are discussed in Rendon's thoughtful and often amusing play, which explores Densmore's legacy through the story of a young Ojibwa man who grew up off the reservation and is now in search of his cultural roots. The irony is that Jack (played by Jay Red Hawk) wants to learn the traditional songs but can't find anyone on the reservation who will teach him. His only reliable resource is a tape of Densmore's recordings and one of her books.
Whining isn't Rendon's style; she prefers to hit her target with humor. In a scene that lampoons Densmore's ignorance of Indian culture, Frances (played with marvelous stuffiness by Alisa Pritchett) is seen at home after a day of recording, trying to plink out the songs on a piano and sing them in her church-choir soprano. Indians come in for mockery as well: When Jack heads to the casino out of frustration at not being able to hear his own spirit-song, the ancient Spirit Woman (Dorene Day) sings the tune in his face as he plays the slots. He just can't hear her over the clatter of coins.
Directed by Eye of the Storm's Casey Stangl, Song Catcher is easily the best play about contemporary American Indian life I've ever seen; and its treatment of Frances Densmore's work, though biased in the extreme, adds thematic dimensions of spirituality and history that don't often find their way onstage.
THE SAME CAN'T be said for Theater Mu's Wok-Up American Dream, written by Maria Cheng. This play, too, tries to use humor to explore the effects of American culture, this time on a Chinese American family, but Cheng has either tried to do too much with this flimsy comic melodrama--or maybe too little.
The Chinese family in question is headed by an extremely successful heart surgeon (played by Soon-Tek Oh) who has realized the material aspects of the American Dream but can't seem to escape the restless melancholy of the truly privileged. Apparently, the malaise is also genetic: The daughter (Sun Mee Chomet) scored a perfect 1600 on her SATs and spends her time agonizing over whether to go to Harvard or study medicine in China. The son (Marcus Young) dreams of using his trust fund to start a dance company with his fiancée, who has an even larger trust fund. And the mother (Lotis Key) spends her time in therapy, bemoaning the emptiness of her life.
"I want it all," says the son, "the art and the Porsche." That attitude applies to pretty much every character in the play. But because they all have the means to get precisely what they want, it doesn't take long for their whining to become insufferable. When all is said and done, all that these people prove is that they are just as adept at screwing up their lives as anyone else. And perhaps this is the most honest aspect to this suspenseless immigrant's tale. Welcome to America.
Song Catcher continues at the Great American History Theatre through May 10; call 292-4323.Wok-Up American Dream continues at Hennepin Center for the Arts, Studio 6A, through May 3; call 824-4804.