Monday, February 17, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Electric Indian at The Invisible Dog Art Center by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Electric Indian at The Invisible Dog Art Center was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Electric Indian
The Invisible Dog Art Center (51 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY)
Reviewed 2/16/14

Conceived & directed by JJ Lind, The Electric Indian successfully combines storytelling, ritual, dance and song with 19th century historical texts, 20th century popular media and 21st century technologies to tell the story of the American Indian (and specifically the Cherokee nation) using the life of Elias Cornelius Boudinot, a controversial Cherokee who served as a Confederate Army colonel during the Civil War, as the linchpin. Also appearing in the production were four other characters, the Sculptress, the Missionary, the Surveyor and the Entertainer, who each represent different aspects of White Society during the 19th century. A main source for the script was The Manners, Customs, Traditions and Present Condition of the Civilized Indians of the Indian Territory, an informational lecture for white audiences by Col. Elias C. Boudinot. The Electric Indian was the name of a studio band created in the 1960s that sought to capitalize on the "native sound" used at the time. The title is a metaphor for the American (and capitalist) impulse to fetishize and commoditize an idealized image of native people. The director, JJ Lind, who identifies as a Cherokee, comes from Vinita, Oklahoma, a town founded and named by Elias Cornelius Boudinot. 

I felt the play fairly and objectively depicted the plight of the American Indian during the 19th century as well-intentioned European-Americans and American Indians sought to find policies that would be in the best long-term interests of the Native Nations in an atmosphere where a number of other Whites sought to take every advantage, legal or illegal, of any Indian or Tribe standing in their way. 

Elias Cornelius Boudinot was born on August 1, 1835, the son of Elias Boudinot, a Cherokee National leader who was editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper. His mother, Harriet Ruggies Gold, a woman of English decent from Cornwall, Connecticut, died in 1836, several months after her seventh child was stillborn. His father and some other relatives were assassinated in 1839 as retaliation for signing the Treaty of New Echota, ceding the remainder of Cherokee lands in the Southeast in exchange for removal to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. For their safety, Boudinot and his siblings were sent back to Connecticut to their mother's family. The Golds ensured the children received good educations. Boudinot studied engineering, became an attorney, and co-founded The Arkansan, a pro-slavery newspaper that favored railroad construction into Indian Territory. In 1860, he was chosen as the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic State Central Committee and in 1861, he served as Secretary of the Secession Convention as the territory determined whether it would leave the Union. In 1863, Boudinot was elected a delegate to the Congress of the Confederate States of America, representing the majority faction of Cherokee who supported the Confederacy. During the Civil War, he served as a Colonel in the Confederate Army and after the war, he was chairman of the Cherokee Delegation to the Southern Treaty Commission, which negotiated treaties with the United States.

The Electric Indian depicts Boudinot struggling to do what is best for his people. Will civilizing the "savage beast" prevent their extinction? Will learning English and becoming American citizens help? Will embracing development and supporting integration through the presence of railroads make a difference? Will abandonment of communal lands and the granting of parcels to individual households of tribal members teach them to be industrious and responsible? Will making Oklahoma a state dominated by Native American politicians help preserve the future of the Native Nations in this country? All of these efforts were supported in one way or another by Boudinot but the results were disappointing to say the least. Was the outcome for the American Indian predictable from the beginning as The Missionary character in the play observes? Was the death of their culture inevitable? Was the American Indian destined to become as the play suggests - a modern day unicorn - magical, mystical and rarely seen? Perhaps.

The Electric Indian tells an important story in an unusual and entertaining manner. It was produced by Immediate Medium and the performers included James Allerdyce, Max Dana, Brady Jenkins, Julie Stainer-Loehr and Siobhan Gandy. The ensemble cast worked well together and pulled off an unconventional piece of theater that educated its audience while taking them on a wild ride. I was particularly impressed with the stage presence and performance of James Allerdyce, who played the Surveyor, and by the charismatic and talented Brady Jenkins, who was the Entertainer. After Boudinot is transformed on stage into a modern day Unicorn, the final scene of the play is a patriotic red, white and blue light display symbolizing the ultimate triumph of the White Man over the Red Man in America - just a matter of fact by this point in the story. I very much enjoyed the production and if the run is extended, I urge you to see this interesting and creative presentation of a slice of our country's history.  

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