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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