Crazy but true: Turtle Theater tells the tale of a powwow at a KKK meetup

Maretta Zilic

Maretta Zilic

“There are a lot of turtles in Native American lore,” says Ernest Briggs, artistic director of Turtle Theater Collective. “As well as being very sacred creatures, they’re very wise creatures because they kind of watch over time and history.”

According to its mission statement, the Minnesota company “is committed to producing high-quality, contemporary work that explores Native experiences and subverts expectations about how and when Native artists can create theater.”

Indeed, there’s hardly a thing about their new production that won’t challenge expectations. From July 10-14 at Mixed Blood Theatre, Turtle Theater Collective is presenting the regional premiere of a play by Larissa FastHorse: What Would Crazy Horse Do?

“The play was inspired by an actual flier I saw in the State Museum of South Dakota for a big Ku Klux Klan gathering in 1926,” said FastHorse in an interview for the Lilly Awards’ website. “The entertainment for the night was a Klan-sponsored powwow. My mind was blown.”

“This show talks about so many things, from a Native American perspective,” says Briggs. “From issues that we’re having in the United States with race, issues with rural communities, issues of suicide—so many different things.”

The first Turtle Theater show, in spring 2018, was the U.S. premiere of Daniel David Moses’ acclaimed Canadian play Almighty Voice and His Wife. The company followed it with a summer 2018 production of Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, staged at the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis.

“We tried to cast the roles with Ojibwe actors playing the roles of the Gibbs family, and Lakota actors playing the roles of the Webb family,” says Briggs, who is White Earth Ojibwe. “Young people—and even elder people from my community—came up and said, ‘It was just nice to see ourselves represented onstage.’”

What Would Crazy Horse Do? is set on a South Dakota reservation in the very recent past. A pair of young adults discover a surprising connection, via their late grandfather, to people who want to revive the KKK: Instead of “white supremacy,” they emphasize language about racial “purity” and “unity.”

Calling the play controversial “doesn’t begin to cover it,” wrote the Kansas City Star in a review of the 2017 world premiere. FastHorse, who resides in California but has Minnesota connections including an affiliation with the Playwrights’ Center, is one of the country’s most buzzworthy young writers; her Thanksgiving Play, a satire about liberal white people trying to retell the holiday’s origin story, landed on the 2017 Kilroys list of exceptional underproduced plays by women.

Briggs is acting in Crazy Horse, and previously participated in a staged reading of the script. “If we’re not careful, we can be led down a dark path,” says Briggs about the work’s message. “The play says a lot about what Native American people are going through and what’s happening, but it’s definitely a cautionary tale.”

What Would Crazy Horse Do?
Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
Through Sunday;