August: Osage County + The Frybread Queen

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Guest post by Kimberly Norris Guerrero
The Indian Out of the Attic
Comparing August: Osage County and The Frybread Queen

For over 800 performances, I was blessed to be able to walk in the flipflops of one of the most enigmatic characters in modern American theatre. A Cheyenne from Oklahoma, Johnna Monevata cooked, cleaned and cared for the Weston family in Tracy Lett’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County. Johnna kept her mouth shut, her head down, didn’t judge, didn’t comment, intervened only when necessary and no matter how bleak it got in the Weston house, never skipped a beat. How? She’d seen much worse.

Those who have read or seen August and want to know Johnna’s side of the story can garner valuable insight into Native American reality by watching Carolyn Dunn’s new play, The Frybread Queen which celebrated its world premiere produced by Native Voices at The Autry Museum in Los Angeles on March 12th. The similarities between the two plays are almost eerie, especially when you realize that Dunn and Letts were writing the pieces at the same time lending credence to the existence of a collective creative consciousness.

Like August: Osage County, The Frybread Queen is a female driven story deftly blending comedy and tragedy where the characters are tied by blood and marriage, represent three generations and have swept painful truths under the carpet—or for the sake of this discussion the Navajo rug—for so many years that it has risen to the height of K2. Also like the Westons, the family of the The Frybread Queen gathers at the old homestead set in rural America, this time the Navajo rez in lieu of “the plains”, to mourn the suicide of a beloved male family member who both plays refer to as “complicated”.

My character in The Frybread Queen, Annalee, a Muscogee Creek originally from Tulsa (where Johnna attended nursing school), is on a mission to scale and conquer the mountain of lies in order to save her teenaged stepdaughter from her ex-mother-in-law’s haunted house much as Johnna saved the teenager from the evil lurking in the Weston house. As Johnna, I nursed a character dying from cancer, as Annalee I am the one dying from lung cancer, the disease which sadly took our original Beverly Weston, the playwright’s father, Dennis Letts one month after we opened on Broadway.

Perhaps the most poignant similarity is that in both plays, I am left alone on stage at the end of the story with the matriarch. The two elders, metaphorical representatives of their respective cultures are forced to choose between perpetuating or breaking the cycle of abuse, addiction and unforgiveness that has spiritually poisoned both of their families for generations. They make very different choices but the T.S. Elliot poem Johnna chants at the end of August: Osage County rings true for both: "this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends" with a despairing whimper, the other with a glorious bang.

The Frybread Queen closes at The Autry this Sunday, March 27. For tickets or more information, please click here.
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More Than One Way to Make Frybread

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A note from Robert Caisley, the director of Frybread Queen, regarding the recipes that are featured in the show.
Each of the very strong, opinionated, passionate women in the play has their own unique take on how to make frybread. The monologues, in which they relate their recipes to the audience, function in several ways. They are an attempt by each character to assert some kind of “authority” over the past, and to take some kind of control over the future. These women are competing, both literally and metaphorically, to be the real frybread queen in the play. 
The monologues take place outside the time and space of the rest of the play. They violate the unity of the narrative, and as such, they are jolting (in a good way) to the senses. They are moments in which the dramatic tension of the play is momentarily suspended so we can offer some respite, some editorial comment, perhaps some time for the audience to reflect. They are meta-theatrical. They unselfconsciously break the 4th wall that the rest of the play adheres to. They offer commentary on the preceding act and cast some shadow over the action which is about to unfold in the following act. They give us a glimpse into the interior life of the characters as they exist outside the central conflict of the play – perhaps a moment in time that represents a “better” time in the lives of these women? 
Jessie, for example, takes great pride in relating her recipe. Perhaps the domestic chores like cooking frybread have been a distraction from the turbulence of her home life with a physically and emotionally abusive husband and an alcoholic son. The familiar recipe as refuge. Her blue ribbon was perhaps the only “merit badge” she had received that told her she was doing a good job as a mother, and so she clings to this victory fiercely. Pride in her recipe, is pride in her ability to survive in the face of extreme adversity. She has tried so hard to keep some semblance of a family together and frybread is part of the tie that binds. The other women’s recipes are alternately ironic, cynical, and comic. 
I like to think of the monologues as “unguarded moments” for each of the women in the play. They are not being observed like they are in the rest of the play. We are able to see a side of them we don’t see at other times in the play.  
Frybread is both a comfort food (practically speaking) and a cancer (culturally speaking - according to Lily’s monologue.) Monologues are moments in which a character is able to speak w/o judgment. In a family in which everyone’s past behavior and current motives are being constantly scrutinized by every other character on stage, these monologues give us rare glimpses of these women not under pressure. The frybread recipes provide us with moments of seeming impartiality. However, the playwright has been careful in how she has constructed the recipes … because we slowly learn as the play goes on that these recipes are anything but impartial, and reflect the essential agenda of each of the women. It’s not just a simple recipe with slight variations; the monologues are just as opinionated as the women are in the rest of the play. They are asserting their moral, ethical and emotional rights in these monologues. It is their appeal to the audience to “root for me.” “I’m right.” “I’m the frybread queen.” 
In a play that is substantially about the specter of past, and the destructive power of blame and denial, these recipe monologues are a refreshing affirmation of the curative effects of love, home, motherhood, cooking, and the tremendous emotional strength of each of the women in this play.
For more information about The Frybread Queen, please visit our website.
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