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REVIEW: You'll laugh despite yourself

“Between Two Knees” is an intergenerational family story that takes place in Wounded Knee, on what is now the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The “two knees” are the massacre of 150 to 300 Sioux in 1890 by U.S. soldiers, and the American Indian Movement takeover of Pine Ridge in 1973 to protest conditions on the reservation.

Heavy subjects, yes, and culturally styled to produce the tears of the white man (or white girl, Becky) who is consumed with grief and guilt over these historic injustices. But the playwrights, the five sketch comedy artists with tribal memberships who call themselves the 1491s, give us direct and explicit permission to laugh freely at the antics, stereotypes and ridiculousness of “Between Two Knees.” The 1491s believe that humor opens the mind to learning.

The world premiere of “Between Two Knees,” directed by Eric Ting, co-commissioned with New Native Theatre and written by The 1491s, Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan RedCorn and Bobby Wilson, opened April 7 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the Thomas Theatre.

Justin Gauthier is the narrator, Larry, and pops up from the floor at unexpected times to reorient the audience, tell a joke and move the narrative along. He opens the show in socks and underwear, casting long, glossy black Native locks about with fetching gesticulation and great appreciation. A Wheel of Indian Massacres makes it evident just how little the audience knows about the murder of Native peoples, but the skit brings a huge laugh because it’s accompanied by blinking lights, game show music and that spinning wheel.

Larry tells us he can smell the white people in the audience (they have the scent of sandalwood and privilege) and says that it is OK to laugh, whether one is Native, white or whatever. And so begins “Between Two Knees,” with its often biting satire, sharp teeth guarded with expressive lips of wit and parody.

“In all of our comedy there’s some jokes for people who don’t know anything about Natives and jokes for Native people and people who are familiar with Native issues,” says environmental activist and 1491 playwright Goldtooth. “It’s a tough balancing act that we want to do our best at.”

Boarding schools are part of America’s dark history, places where Native children were subject to abuse and acculturation. The 1491s tell that story through the experiences of Young Irma and Young Isaiah, played respectively by Shyla Lefner and Derek Garza (name corrected from previous version). Lefner is dazzling as Young Irma, a firebrand who will not accept subjugation and wields a machete of resistance. Together they battle demonic Catholic priests, cowled nunjas and a mother superior from hell in what must have been one of OSF fight director Rod Kinter’s weirdest and most wonderful scenes.

Totem animals in the form of hand puppets, an LED-lit circumcised penis that proves a Native man is white, a hysterical all-denomination wedding, a baby baptized with Becky’s tears, vision quests, killing German white men in World War II and getting napalmed in Vietnam, AIM babies and Whiteclay, Nebraska, are all worked into the production and the audience is helpless, forced to laugh or wonder at the inside-outside jokes.

Intergenerational trauma is a central theme running through “Between Two Knees.” The timeline of the play, from 1890 to 1973, is intentional and reflects a continuity of love and also dysfunction that may be unrelieved and unrelenting. Trauma — caused by abuse, corruption and injustice — can be both learned and innate, inherited and part of a family’s DNA.

April Ortiz as Older Irma and Wotko Long as Older Isaiah are the constants in a complicated family, bookending the show between the two knees. As elders, Ortiz and Long’s loving words and wise ways both confront and confound, standing in memory of lost children and in hope of a new future.

“We’re a sketch comedy group, so how do we create a full narrative, how do we piece this all together into a story that’s cohesive about this family?” says Goldtooth. “That was the biggest part, the greatest amount of work — how can we create a story that moves the family along but lets us get our jabs in here and there?”

“Between Two Knees” is halfway between “Manahatta” and “Destiny of Desire,” noted 1491 playwright Pensoneau in a 2018 podcast. The troupe was on the OSF campus last year, and Pensoneau said that seeing these two plays gave the crew permission to be as silly and as serious as they wanted. It must have been a delightful challenge for director Ting to shape a production like “Between Two Knees” with five sketch artists working through improv scenes, testing the success of each line with a figurative laugh meter. Those close to the show admit that scripts changed right up to opening day.

After nearly two hours of comedic trauma, rich word-play and stereotypes of stereotypes, the ending act with the full ensemble fancy dancing in space suits is extravagant, hilarious and eloquent. Somehow, at some time, a perfect visionary future world becomes a reality, only possible because all the white people are gone.

Goldtooth says that the 1491s had that ending in mind from the very beginning, that their vision of decolonization never wavered as they crafted comedy to tell the story of Native people in America.

“Between Two Knees” continues in the Thomas Theatre through Oct. 27 with a sign-interpreted performance May 25. The show uses humor to present difficult and often violent themes and so will be appropriate for mature audiences. For an interview with Pensoneau and more information about the show, see www.OSFAshland.org. Tickets are available through the OSF website and by calling the OSF box office at 800-219-8161.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Wotko Long, Rachel Crowl, April Ortiz, Derek Garza, Shaun Taylor-Corbett in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Between Two Knees." Photo by Jenny Graham