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Guthrie’s ‘For the People’ has funny material and Franklin Avenue itself

Set in a newly built community center sometime in the future, it centers around a task force of Native folks based along Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, which in real life has a long history of being a hub for urban Native communities, businesses and organizations.

Sheri Foster Blake (Daisy Childs), Wes Studi (Herb O’Geezhik) and Ernest Briggs (Levi Mitchell). Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle

As you walk to your seat at the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium to see “For the People,” you’re greeted with a colorful, gorgeous set designed by scenic designer Tanya Orellana with support from mural artists Marlena Myles and Thomasina TopBear. It’s decorated with floral designs inspired by Native traditions, monarch butterflies, Dakota and Anishinaabe language and a sign that reads: “Never Homeless Before 1492.”

The joyful, perhaps revolutionary stage design sets the tone for a play filled with humor, hope and fight. Set in a newly built community center sometime in the future, it centers around a task force of Native folks based along Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, which in real life has a long history of being a hub for urban Native communities, businesses and organizations. The council is tasked with making decisions around the future of the avenue, as they face obstacles like a scarcity of resources, grant bureaucracy, opposing visions within the group itself and the threat of gentrification.

There are a bunch of folks from the Minnesota Native community that are a part of the show, like muralists Myles and TopBear, and cast members Ernest Briggs, Nathaniel TwoBears and Adrienne Zimiga-January. There is also a Native Advisory Council supporting the work, two elders from the community (Carrie Day Aspinwall and Juanita Espinosa), Dakota language consultants, and local musicians that contributed to the pre-show and post-show music.

The playwrights both have ties to Minnesota as well. Larissa FastHorse, a ballet dancer turned playwright, whose satirical “The Thanksgiving Play” has won rave reviews during its run on Broadway earlier this year, has family members from Minnesota. She spent time in the Twin Cities and New Ulm as a young person and had her play, “Average Family,” produced by the Children’s Theatre Company early in her career. She’s also writing the book for the new musical adaptation of “Peter Pan,” opening at the Ordway on Dec. 6. FastHorse’ writing partner, Ty Defoe — who is also an interdisciplinary artist and actor — grew up in Wisconsin, and visited the “big city” of Minneapolis often as a young person.

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The two run a consulting firm called Indigenous Direction that’s aimed at helping organizations — like the Guthrie — to create accurate work by, for and about Native communities.

Starting in 2015, Indigenous Direction worked at the Guthrie on an engagement project called “Water is Sacred.” “That was the first time we set the seeds for creating work with the community,” Defoe says. Working with Native artists in the community, they created a performance that blended music, text, dance and discussion, and performed a culminating event in 2017. Then in 2019, they presented “Stories from the Drum,” another Indigenous-led performance that was created through a series of workshops.

“We kept on continuing to talk and converse and really think about change and what that means going beyond land acknowledgment,” Defoe says. “We started with some virtual talking circles, talking with the community about what they might want to see on the stage. And folks said, ‘Hey, we want to see some funny material out there, because there’s a lot of healing that needs to go on in the community.’ ”

In their engagement work, DeFoe and FastHorse visited Little Earth, and the American Indian Center, and worked with the Division of Indian Work to reach out to elders and community members who wanted to be a part of the process.

“It was very much a group effort to make sure as many people as possible were invited,” FastHorse says, “And especially prioritizing elders and Dakota people to make sure they’re being heard on their own land.”

The cast of For the People. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle
The process involved writing workshops, story circles and simply talking to people, FastHorse says. “We’ve told people — we’re creating this piece, what does it need to be about?” she says. “And then once we had a draft outline of the play, then we took it back and invited people to read it with us.”

One of the main themes that emerged from the workshops, Fasthorse says, is Franklin Avenue itself. In the play, characters bring up locations on the avenue like the American Indian Center, and Ancient Traders Plaza, as well as other Native American community landmarks like Birchbark Books, located in Kenwood. There’s even a reference to how difficult it is to get a reservation at Owamni restaurant.

The play centers around a series of task force meetings. The character of April Dakota (played by Katie Anvil Rich), has built a new community center thanks to money her father lent her, and hopes for a grant to help her staff the center. She dreams of Native language classes, but doesn’t have the money to pay teachers, for instance. But her pitch to the task force about weight training using rocks she dredged up from the river doesn’t go over well, nor do some of her other nontraditional new age-y ideas.

When things don’t go her way, she employs the help of her friend, a white social media influencer named Esme Williams (played by Kendall Kent). The two practice a kind of yoga together — which April has adapted to incorporate Native imagery. The two young women get along swimmingly, and bond over both being daughters of fathers who they think don’t take them seriously. (Esme’s father is a real estate developer, and April’s father is a casino owner named Robert Dakota, played by Kalani Queypo.)

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Katie Anvil Rich (April Dakota) and Kalani Queypo (Robert Dakota) in For the People. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle
Soon, April is dreaming up a notion to create a new “tribe,” and Esme is dreaming up using her own father’s money to gentrify the whole neighborhood.

The ensemble cast members bring a lightness to the text. Wes Studi — whom you may recognize from his roles in movies like “Dances With Wolves” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” delivers zingers with impeccable comic timing throughout the show as his character Herb O’Geezhik, one of the elders in the group. Sheri Foster Blake, another actor with many film and television credits, plays another elder, Daisy Stone, with sweet charm. As April, Katie Anvil Rich, finds a nice balance between finding the humor of her character’s misguided ideas and her humanity as well.

The play steers clear of any sort of trauma narrative. In fact, the only time it veers in that direction is when April name-drops a list of historical traumas in an effort to help stall for time at a city zoning meeting. Instead, the story very much focuses on the future, using comedy and satire to speak to the obstacles for how that future is shaped.

Because the play is set “a little in the future,” there are certain elements that are not exactly the same Franklin Avenue (branded as “The American Indian Cultural Corridor,” by the Native American Community Development Institute since 2010). Absent is mention of the strong contemporary arts scene that has blossomed from the avenue. (There’s no mention of New Native Theatre, All My Relations Gallery or Two Rivers Gallery.

Yet there’s a lot that rings true in the play, directed by Michael John Garcés, especially in its surprise ending, which I won’t divulge here, though I’ll offer a hint that there’s some really cool stage effects. Suffice to say, the piece begins and ends with different ideas of utopia, with the final version teeming with radical energy.

Supplementing the run of the play, the Guthrie is hosting two Native pop-up markets where visitors can purchase jewelry, prints, photography and crafts by local Native makers. They take place on Saturdays, Oct. 21 and Nov. 4, from 2 to 7 p.m. There’s also a pre-show with Native comedian Trish Cook on Thursday, Oct. 26, from 6 to 7 p.m. ($10).

Performances of “For the People” run through Nov. 12 (tickets starting at $34). More information here.