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Where We Belong – An American Indian Story at the Folger Looks for Answers

ALEXANDRIA, VA – Full Disclosure: I wrote on Native American culture for Indian Country Today Media Network Magazine for eight years.

Madeline Sayet in WHERE WE BELONG at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Photo by Mark Garvin.

When playwright and presenter Madeline Sayet, aka Achokayis, discovers her Mohegan name means “blackbird,” she imagines where flight would take her. In this one-woman show – a co-production with Woolly Mammoth – she begins her story in an airport in Sweden – a stopover on her way to London’s Oxford University, where she hopes to earn her PhD in Shakespearean literature. Although initially afraid of flying, she grants it a bit of avian symbolism. “In the sky, the borders disappear,” she imagines.

Her fascination with Shakespeare stems from a need to escape the perils and pressures of being Native American. Learn the language. Overcome discrimination. Get out from under her mother’s constant reminders to “listen to your ancestors.” But the more she learns about the history of her people – their stolen lands, the broken treaties, the forced removal – the more haunted she becomes.

As she tells it in this one-woman drama, when she stands up for herself in class to discredit both British- and American-written history books, she gets pushback from her professors eager to sweep the ugly truths into the dustbin of history. But Sayet knows her Native American history, and her determination to share that knowledge with her professor and fellow students finds her in a very precarious position.

Madeline Sayet in WHERE WE BELONG at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Photo by Mark Garvin.

She learns the hard way it’s not politically correct to discuss the Indian Wars, the renaming of Indian lands by the British using British names, or the policies of Andrew Jackson, who was responsible for the horrific Trail of Tears.

Sayet has formed an idealization of Shakespeare as an anti-colonialist, a concept that, on the surface, seems extraordinarily naïve. She imagines Caliban from The Tempest as Shakespeare’s way of empathizing with and triumphing the native, but connecting Shakespeare’s literary intent to indigenous culture becomes a bridge too far for me.

Think of this production as a black box staging with spare lighting and set design, not the sort of production usually seen at The Folger. Apart from that, Sayet’s telling gives the listener a lot of background on the history of Indian affairs in America and Great Britain and lands this play somewhere between a doctoral dissertation and her personal story.

Madeline Sayet in WHERE WE BELONG at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Photo by Mark Garvin.

What I found more interesting was the tension and connection in her relationship with her mother back in America. She playacts the phone calls and we learn the pressures she is under to revive their forgotten tribal history. “Your mission is our survival,” her mother warns.

I found this story to be the perfect primer for high school students and adults who are ill-informed about the very real issues that American Indians face every day.

Madeline Sayet in WHERE WE BELONG at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Photo by Mark Garvin.

“We’re still here” is a saying held by Native Americans to let the world know they are still on this earth and their needs and claims are valid. It also goes toward explaining the importance of the repatriation of tribal objects and ancestral remains. And if we think of this story in those terms, therein lies its value.

Directed by Mei Ann Teo, Lighting, Scenic Design, and Props by Hao Bai, Costume Design by Asa Benally, Musical Composer and Sound Designer Erik Schilke.

Through March 10 at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 E Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC. Call the box office at 202 544.7077 for tickets and information or visit

Jordan Wright

Jordan Wright is a noted publisher and writer focused on food, spirits, travel, theatre and lifestyles.  Her writing can also be found on her personal website

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