Mohegan theater artist Madeline Sayet’s solo show “Where We Belong” takes a skeptical view of Shakespeare. In 2019, it premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to kill me. I’m going to get thrown off stage,’ ” Sayet said.
But Sayet, who’s based in Phoenix, where she’s a clinical assistant professor in Arizona State University’s English department, found receptive audiences with her tale of moving to the U.K. in 2015 to pursue a doctorate in Shakespeare. Grappling with the legacy of colonialism that continues to reverberate and her questions of identity as a Native person, “Where We Belong” launched a national tour, produced by Washington, D.C.-based Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, earlier this year.
Written and performed by Sayet, “Where We Belong” opens at Seattle Rep on Sept. 14, with previews beginning Sept. 9. As part of the tour, Sayet developed an accountability rider that theaters must agree to in order to host the show, with requirements that include a commitment to present work by local Native artists and to never employ redface again. Seattle Rep began providing free tickets to Native individuals a few seasons ago, which is one of Sayet’s requirements, and in 2021, the theater launched a Native artist-in-residence program.
We spoke with Sayet about how her perspective on the show has changed and her thoughts on canceling Shakespeare. Excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.
What is the experience like performing such a personal piece for an extended period? Do you feel like you’re gaining some distance the more you do it, or does it just get more personal?
I think at the very beginning when I first started performing, it was very close to all of the events in the piece, and so I was carrying a lot of pain. Over time, I had to create a little bit of distance from it.
I keep thinking about this thing someone told me one time about the way memory works, and that every time you recall a memory, your brain has to reconstruct it. And because I was going through the exact same events over and over and over and over and over again, it just hit a point where something switched in my brain from actually reexperiencing the experience to doing the scene.
There’s never full distance because no matter what, there’ll always be something going on with my family or my tribal nation or the politics of the world that is making a certain thing resonate even stronger.
When you were conceiving “Where We Belong,” did you always consider it as a solo show?
Originally when I wrote this, I did not expect to be performing. I kind of wrote it like a stream-of-consciousness journal entry. At the moment, I was really struggling with having just moved back from the U.K. and what it meant as a Mohegan person to be missing England, and the fact that for the first time ever, I felt a little bit up in the air. I felt like a bird. I felt like I needed to confess that. [But] I did not think that I would perform it for lots of strangers in public. I did not think that I would then do that a bunch of times.
What have you noticed about touring the show and performing it for different audiences?
In the Northeast, [the play is] very much about there. So there’s a duality to that: There is both the poignancy of the present erasure that goes on in the Northeastern Woodlands in terms of Indigenous representation, but there is also the presence of the extremely strong colonial viewpoints that still exist there. There’s both real poignancy of the text and then also certain resistance to the text, depending on which audiences you get.
I am curious what it’s going to be like in Seattle because [there aren’t] the same erasure politics as in the Northeast. I feel like the Native nations are much more present and visible in a very different way. Like our [Mohegan] language is working really hard to try and be revitalized. A lot of the languages out there have never been lost and still have speakers.
What about differences performing it in the U.K. versus the U.S.?
In the U.K., it was 2019, and then once it started performances in the States, it was 2021. I feel like a lot changed during that time. Obviously, there was a pandemic. [But] politically, there was a lot that changed. So I was able to shift things in the play to be quite a bit more direct.
I think that the play used to exist a little bit more in the space between “I love Shakespeare” and “I love my Mohegan culture” — and why am I being forced to choose? And now I feel like it exists a little bit more in the space of “I have to find myself in Shakespeare because this other thing was taken away from me.”
What’s your perspective on the future of Shakespeare?
There were like 14 articles last year where the conservative British papers were trying to make it sound like I was trying to cancel Shakespeare, and I was like, “He’s not going anywhere.” I never said he doesn’t contribute anything, [but] I think treating anything like it’s a god is problematic, especially if we’re deifying something that carries the politics from years ago and treating it as if it’s neutral. That means your politics are 400-year-old politics.
But I still have a passionate relationship to the plays. I’m still interested in, you know, certain moments in them. I still direct them and engage with them. But I do think that they aren’t perfect and that teaching them as if they are some sort of like, perfect thing that cannot be questioned is a little bit creepy.
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