An Evening At The Warbonnet

Review by Larry P. Madden

As the house lights went down at 6:00 Friday night, the crowd in Oneida was ready for another College of Menominee Nation and Oneida Nation Art’s Board collaboration.  The play, “Evening at the Warbonnet,” by Bruce King, was about to open at the Norbert Hill Center’s auditorium.  Having previously read the play, I was ready to be swept away on a journey to an Indian twilight Zone where the fragile conditions that have kept our people disconnected from the American over-culture would be on full display.
Cast of Warbonnet
The play is set in a typical urban Indian bar in any metropolitan city. On the night of the play the combination of personalities gathered under the Warbonnet’s banner brought forth the dregs of society, drug addiction, lascivious behavior, murder, lost love and sexual deviance all in one room.  The hosts go by the names of Ki and Ducky, but the second act reveals them to be the tricksters, Coyote and Loon. Regardless of their monikers, these two fulfill their traditional roles as burdens on the backs of men.  Though the patrons don’t know it yet, the bar is their last chance to confront the hard ugly factors and possibly save their souls. The Creator’s goal is for the four visitors to “drop their burdens” and cross the river to a happier place. The characters themselves are oblivious as they believe they just stumbled into an Indian bar looking for other patrons to share their collective despair with.

King is a talented writer who has had his works performed in theatre venues from New York to Santa Fe, including many Native communities in both Canada and America.  As a member of the Turtle Clan of the Oneida Nation and a veteran of the Vietnam War, King is able to write Native theatre from a unique perspective.  Staging this perspective is the reproduction’s director, Ryan Winn, who has an unrivaled insight into the importance of Native American theatre.  From the classroom to the stage, he grooms minds to realize this important, but many times overlooked, venue of talent in the Indian community. For ten years his guidance allowed the thespian spark to be kindled in our area. In conjunction with CMN campus students and community volunteers and the very progressive Oneida Arts program, Native theatre is alive and well in Northeast Wisconsin.

This was Winn’s seventeenth production for CMN and his past efforts helped lead to Assistant Director Elizabeth Rice and Technical Director Nathaniel (Nat) Madsen to bring a self-assured confidence to their work. The three of them working together allows the less experienced in the cast to join a comfortable working environment to hone their skills.  Teaching American Indian theatre courses at CMN since 2005, Winn has allowed students to not only realize that theatre is a viable option for Native Americans, but to also discover that they must participate. The environment CMN creates for their performers compels actors from previous productions to return to capture the magic again.  Two such actors are the talented Colleen Clair Rice and Dylan Benton who admirably undertook roles much larger than their young age might lead one to believe they could handle and performed them with skill. Veteran performer Lloyd Frieson played the role of Ki the trickster who was able to use his savvy stage skills to cover some minor gaffes in the production. Frieson brought the humorous and cocky Ki to reality on stage as barkeeper/gatekeeper to the unknown.  The elegant and beautiful Kayloni Heczko, who played Sugar Lin was well cast to depict the sultry yet tortured character that King created.  Matthew Scott Whitney played Artsy, the damaged Vietnam veteran troubled by war crimes committed by his own hand, and Whitney’s moody and distant performance played well into the part.  Autumn Michaletz played the role of Ducky, one of the most difficult roles as Loon the trickster. She was the perfect straight man to the flamboyant KI.  Technical crews are an often forgotten but essential aspect to any performance, this show’s came through with the elements that helped create the ambiance.  Melinda Cree, Leona Draghi, Jesse Norton working with Matt Klamp covered the set, sound, poster and program design duties admirably.

From this reviewer’s perspective the play went quite well at the Norbert Hill Center auditorium.  As with any production there was a pregnant pause or two, but with Frieson’s experience and Ki’s over-the-top character it was hardly noticeable to an audience unfamiliar with the script.  One glaring (pun intended) gaff was the positioning of stage lights that shone into a back bar mirror, blinding the audience regardless of seating position.  But overall, bravo to this cast and crew who rose above family, job, and final exams to present Bruce King’s, “Evening at the Warbonnet,” in a fashion that would have satisfied the playwright. Of this I feel quite certain.

Larry P. Madden is an enrolled member of the Mohican Nation Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin. He is a recent graduate of College of Menominee Nation.