To the editors:
I wanted to inform you of a striking coincidence. Recently, Albert Williams reviewed Power Pipes, a play about the "indigenous Americans whose culture was trampled by the European explorers," and gave it his Critic's Choice [September 18]. I'm sure it was an excellent play. Amazingly, I saw a play with the exact same name at the same location, and based on the picture in the Reader, the same cast, but it was apparently a completely different play! The play I saw was insipid, socially misdirected, and tedious. The set, the script, and the performance were not only boring and misguided, I was in the front row and would have walked out had the play not ended the moment I stood up to leave.
I can best describe the play this way: Imagine six stereotypical, middle-class, middle-aged mothers and housewives. If we employ a little armchair psychology, we might suppose their individuality and personal goals have been subverted by the "American" Dream. Then they go to one of those three-week "find your inner child" seminars, and they discover they have a common Native American ancestry. The Power Pipes I saw was the resulting graduation project.
The set was a collection of poorly painted sheets. The costumes were gathered from the cast's own typically American wardrobe, and were adorned with affectations of Native American symbolism. The performance began with the sextet playing the panpipe and performing a dance. I'm not sure how this South American instrument figures into the play's theme, but it has never been used by the North American Indian.* Perhaps because "South American Indian" contains the phrase "American Indian," or because anthropologists believe both have the same racial roots. Perhaps they were trying to evoke a pan-Indian symbolism.
The play took a Native American drum chant, which I believe was commonly used as both a religious ceremony and a means to inform the community of impending danger, and used its rhythm to gossip about good-looking men and shopping. They actually used a bag of Fritos to symbolize the maize which was the common staple food of the North American Indian. A sequined half-moon "headdress" with cheap plastic feathers was supposed, I assume, to remind us of an eagle feather and ultimately the common image of "the hunter." I was appalled at how cheaply the cast sold the symbols of their own heritage. I learned nothing about the Native American's situation today, nor 500 years ago, nor about how the arrival of the Europeans affected the North American Indian.
One woman, for no apparent reason, had her face painted green. If her makeup hadn't spent most of the show running slowly off her face, down her neck and into her cleavage, I might have accepted the putrid shade as some sort of "symbol." As it was, it became another joke in this unintended farce.
In short, the play I saw was pathetic, and evocative of nothing except a mixture of boredom and rage. I thought you at the Reader might be amused by the coincidence of two plays with the same name. I'm so glad Mr. Williams was not only so fortunate as to see the better of the two, but that he was in no way swayed by the fact that the cast was made up of American Indians, or by his presumed European ancestors' marauding heritage, nor by the play's "political correctness." I encourage him to continue his fine tradition of theater review at the Reader.
*Having written this letter, I felt I should do some research. Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates the panpipe, also called the panflute, has been around since neolithic times, and used in various cultures, including that of South America. Not in North America, however, at least according to EB. Also, maize was indeed the primary crop of the midwestern American Indian from about 0 BC onward, various droughts notwithstanding. Indians of the American continents are in fact believed to have come from Mongolia prior to 10,000 BC; and the drum, also around since neolithic times, has been used universally by humankind, and almost exclusively for religious ceremonies and group communication. In North America, it was used particularly by the shaman, or medicine man.