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Phil Berman on Three Blessed Brothers

Great theatre inspires great conversation. In my previous blog post, I wrote a response to Phil Berman’s new play Three Blessed Brothers. I sent the review to Phil, and opened up a conversation with the playwright about his work, his process, and what it means for him to be telling this story. Here’s what he has to say:

Throughout the process of creating the show (both writing on my own and in rehearsal through both the initial production and the BU iteration that just closed) I’ve wrestled with notions of cultural appropriation–who am I as a white Jewish man to be telling these stories? What bodies should be telling these stories onstage? Where is the Lakota/Native voice represented and how can it be more involved? I am still grappling with these questions and am eager to hear more voices discussing this in debate. Over the last year, facebook-ready blogs have been posting articles on Native appropriation (Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret). Every time I read one of these articles and the subsequent comments, I reeled in my bed and pulled my hair: “Is this what I’m doing? Am I a horrible person?” Ultimately, I was able to reassure myself back to a state of calm by reminding myself what the play is (to me) actually doing: weaving these tales together in their own context.

The stories and characters in question (Iktomi & the Ducks, the Deer Woman, the Thunderbird, the White Buffalo Calf Woman) were painstakingly researched and adapted from multiple Native sources, albeit slightly edited to fit the narrative arch of the brothers’ journey.

One can argue that even the basic framing of the story (the idea that the Native story is woven into the dominant white American story) is fraught with an oppresionist outlook. To those who might make this argument, I ask you to look at the play not in terms of individual moments, but as a whole conclusive journey. The underlying story of this play (to me) has always been about a realization and checking of privilege in this country. It is only after the brothers have run rampant throughout the Native stories that they realize their wrongdoings, and actively seek to make amends with the natural world order (the shadow puppet sequence). In the context of a performance of this play at a school, the story serves two functions: to educate and perpetuate the Native stories and philosophies that have been all but eradicated from contemporary American culture, and to offer young people a constructive means to talk about privilege in a way that’s safe and responsible without being accusatory.

As for the role of women performing in the play, I’m all for it. On the Free Hands facebook page, you can see photos from the first developmental workshop of the play where the third brother was played by the magnificent actor/mandolinist/bluegrass singer Sarah Morrow. While Sarah and I were extremely pleased to work with the incredibly talented cast that was assigned to the project, we did include several women in our initial request list to CFA faculty. I’m glad we had the cast we did, but interested to see what a female body onstage would have brought to the final production.

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