A Conversation with Donna Couteau, Joe Cross, Gloria Miguel, Muriel Miguel, Soni Moreno and Sheldon Raymore
Written by Margarita Javier
Photography by Walesca Ambroise
June 20, 2018
In 1976, three sisters – Gloria Miguel, Muriel Miguel and Lisa Mayo (née Elizabeth Miguel) from Kuna and Rappahannock ancestry – formed the legendary Spiderwoman Theater, the first indigenous feminist theater group in the United States. Their plays have been produced all over the world and published in numerous anthologies. Muriel Miguel’s latest piece as writer and director, Fear of Oatmeal, is playing through June 24 at Theater for a New City. An elder Native woman (played by Muriel’s sister Gloria) sits at her colorful Brooklyn apartment as the spirits of her ancestors – ever present – materialize with stories that illuminate her past, present, and future. The play features an entirely Native cast, and is a vibrant, funny, and heartfelt tribute to heritage, memory, family, and the perseverance of culture. We sat down with Gloria and Muriel, as well as the remaining cast members – Donna Couteau, Joe Cross, Soni Moreno and Sheldon Raymore – to discuss the play and the importance of Native representation in the arts.
Margarita Javier: Could you please introduce yourselves and tell us which character you play?
Soni Moreno: I play the part of Nita Matariki, and I’m from Pleiades.
Joe Cross: The seeum that I play is Bear and it says “Knotsititi” on my shield. From the Caddo Tribe. Knotsi is bear, titi is little/small.So it means Little Bear. It also refers to Ursa Minor as a constellation.
Sheldon Reymore: I’m the other seeum. I play Thunder and I’m from the Pleiades as well.
Muriel Miguel: Could everyone please mention where they’re from?
Soni: I’m from California, and I’m Maya, Apache, and Yaqui. And I live in Staten Island.
Joe: I’m Caddo and Pottawatomie and I live in New York City.
Sheldon: I’m from the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.
Gloria Miguel: I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and my character is Nelly.
Muriel: Where are you from, Gloria?
Gloria: My native background is Kuna Yala and Rappahanock.
Donna Couteau: My character is Henny. I call her Henny Penny cause every penny helps [laughs]. And I’m from the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.
Muriel Miguel: I’m Kuna Rappahanock. I live in Brooklyn. And I’m the writer and director.
Margarita: Is there a terminology you prefer when referring to your heritage?
Joe: I’ll say it’s a question that’s been going on for some decades. All kinds of names have been passed around, which I don’t care to go into. One thing I liked 40 years ago was the term “indigenous.” I liked that. Now Native people and indigenous kind of has a connection with other people all around the world.
Soni: I like that, too.
Margarita: This production is from Theater for the New City in collaboration with Amerinda and Spiderwoman Theater. What can you tell us about Amerinda and Spiderwoman Theater, since we have two founders of Spiderwoman right here?
Gloria: Spiderwoman, we’ve been together since 1975. I think we had our first rehearsal then. We’ve performed all over the world. We got together because we were three sisters, and we were all in theater. We decided that we didn’t see ourselves represented and that if we did get together and use all our different backgrounds we would be able to do that. I think we were successful in that. We changed attitudes. I mean, we were still fighting…
Joe: Just with each other! [laughs]
Gloria: No, well, yes, with each other, but one of us passed away. We’re still fighting in our dreams, I guess. No, but fighting for certain rights.
Muriel: We are the oldest Native feminist theater in the world, as far as we know. That’s important. The stories that we tell are from many nations, but mostly from the spirit, which is really important to us.
Gloria: We were performing for a few years before the cross country to go to reservations, etc. And that was one of the reasons we wanted the young people to see that we can be on stage. We didn’t have to be just in John Wayne movies and stuff like that. Sheldon said that he saw us when he was in high school and it had an effect on him. And here he is working with us! I think it’s so exciting.
Margarita: Do you want to talk about when you saw them?
Sheldon: They’re legends in the Native Theater world. So it’s an honor to have this opportunity and to be mentored. It’s just really cool.
Margarita: What can you tell us about this play, Fear of Oatmeal?
Gloria: I feel my family when we are on the stage. I’m wearing my mother’s dress, you know. There are stories from way back there. I wasn’t always with my sister. I know the story and I know her feelings. And mine, also, all of which are connected to our house. It just occurred to me that we use the word “mound” without connecting it to the Native world. We used to have a mound, and used to put things in there and cover it up with flowers of asphalt or whatever for years and underneath our house we have a mound. So it’s like we are sitting on all this history.
Donna: I was just going to say that their house is also legendary. I’ve been around a very long time, but their family has been here for over a hundred years, so Native people that would come to this area would find themselves over at their home, and you could stay there. They would take care of you. And so they had these incredible stories, and it’s so wonderful to see this play and I just feel so blessed to be a part of this because when I came to New York, I was a dancer and a ballerina. I had a very brief career because I injured myself. I was so fortunate to have met them and then be able to have another career which went into theater. There are so many stories, and this is such a great one – the thing with the spirits and everything – and I really feel that we’re really encountering that every single night [laughs].
Margarita: I was very struck by the set design by Dedalus Wainwright and the costumes by Gabriekke Amelia Marino. Do you have any insight about that process and did you have any input in the design of the costumes and set design?
Soni: We did have input and we were given the freedom to design our own space pod, or the shield.
Margarita: So you each designed your own shield?
Joe: Pretty much.
Soni: Yes, and they’re a part of the character. I knew I wanted this skirt [laughs]. It’s like reverting back to my childhood, but also, this is who I am, too, you know. I believe in magic and I believe in seeums. We do encounter them every day and every culture has them. And so this play in particular sings and speaks to me.
Muriel: I try when I’m directing to make an ensemble, that’s really the important thing, to make the ensemble. I really want to work with Native actors. So I’m very fortunate that I have five Native actors who are talented and can work. I’m also fortunate because they followed me [laughs].
Joe: I think confidence is something that comes out. It’s a process. It may not be something you understand in your scene or even in your monologue or dialogue at that time. You just have to feel that the changes that you’re experiencing are going to be for the best. I think everybody’s worked with Muriel before, except for Sheldon, so we have experienced that directoral comradery that comes with this. You’ve got to have a lot of giving and you’re going to go do a lot of taking.
Margarita: It actually shows. You’re very comfortable with each other and there’s something about it that when you’re in the audience and you’re seeing it, you can tell there’s trust, that you know each other that you understand the work in a way that’s pretty unique.
Muriel: We’re all pretty good friends. There’s a lot of generosity.
Margarita: I’m fascinated with using theater as a tool for social change. Is there a political motivation or is there some activism into what you do as performers and as creators and artists?
Sheldon: Muriel says, if it’s Native theater, if it’s about us, it should be for us and by us. Right? No red face!
Donna: And don’t do side shows! [laughs]
Soni: We don’t do circus acts! [laughs]
Joe: Hashtag no red face.
Margarita: Muriel, you mentioned in your artistic statement the importance of having not just Native people on stage but also behind the scenes as, and I think it’s really great that you are doing that. I think of a lot of companies in New York City that always make the excuse whenever they don’t cast authentically and claim it’s impossible, and here you are proving that it’s possible. It can be done.
Suni: It’s difficult.
Muriel: We are many generations here. Also you have to think about what you do when you have someone over 70 working. What do you have to do to be accommodating to them?
Gloria: And that’s me [laughs]. I’m going to be 92 next month, and that’s old [laughs].
Donna: I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of 92-year-old performers, period. And that’s why I think it’s so important to be so inclusive, to have all the generations represented. I think it’s a very rare and wonderful thing.
Muriel: It’s also what Native people really think of, in the families and talking about their elders. We have to keep them really close. We have to teach the other generations how to be generous and how to work. That’s really important. That goes both ways.
Margarita: Is there a younger generation of Native artists that you work with, thinking of the future of companies like this one?
Muriel: It’s all Sheldon [laughs]. I have actually. With our family, theater is a business.
Gloria: My daughter’s an actress, my grandson’s a performer. I don’t have great-grandkids yet, but…
Muriel: My daughter is a performer and writer, my granddaughter is also a singer and a dancer. I think of working other younger actors. For a long time, I worked at the Centre for Indigenous Theater, which is in Toronto. I’m going to do an intensive workshop with young people in July.
Gloria: Our father was a performer. He did a lot carnival work too. That’s how we met Native people since we were young.
Muriel: Many years ago in New York City, it was really snake oil time, and showbiz Indian time. A lot of people don’t like to admit it, but that’s what we were. And that’s how a lot of us made money for our families.
Julia: We found an old photograph of my father performing way back from 1936.
Margarita: Sheldon, I have a question for you. You are also a dancer, choreographer, right? Did you do the choreography for the show or did you have any input on it?
Sheldon: No, I was directed by Muriel. We worked that out together. I’m a grass dancer and Native dancer.
Margarita: For those of you who are performers, what is your dream role?
Muriel: Sheldon wants to play Pagliacci [laughs].
Sheldon: Disney World! [laughs]
Donna: I always wanted to go on Broadway. I had always wanted to do a musical and be a triple threat. One of my very favorite performers, and I love to see her, is Chita Rivera.
Margarita: I am obsessed with Chita Rivera.
Donna: Me too! I was sitting in the front row. She had this like black and red feather boa, and a feather flew out and right in my lap.
Margarita: What do you hope audiences – Native and non-Native alike – take away from this play?
Donna: I want audiences to do their own thinking. I don’t like to say and the moral is in an Aesop’s fable-y way. I’m not like that. I guess just to know that we’re here and we continue to be here and we’re going to be here. Like Nelly says at the end of the play: “I’m still here.”
Soni: I kind of feel the same way, it’s up to the audience. Think a little bit.
Muriel: I guess I feel that way too. I had a lot in mind when I started to write. A lot of it came from dialogue and seeing if I could write dialogue. That’s how it started. And then I started to think about all the people that I knew and how they talk and, and then it just kept on going. Someone said to me Well, you know, your house is a mound and that started a whole other direction. This thing about oatmeal was something in my family since I was seven or eight years old. All of that started to come together and I really wanted to know if I could write a play rather than working on people’s bodies and working together on their stories. I wanted to tell my stories. That’s how it had its birth, with those thoughts in mind. I don’t know what I want anyone to come away with because I just write, and if I’m not writing, I’m working with people. I really don’t know how they come out of it and what they’re saying. I’m really interested in what people say. I want to know what you think.
Margarita: I’m curious about your thoughts on this current administration’s immigration policies.
Muriel: I’ve been thinking a lot about this thing with the children. What do we do about leaving children at the border? What is that? You can’t say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but then leave your children and put them in concentration camps, almost. It does remind me of the old regime. This is 1492 again. Now it’s 2018 and here we are doing the same thing again. And it’s brown people. What are we doing about it? What are we doing about that, that’s what I want to know. What are we doing about it? We have to do something. I’ve been thinking about this because I feel like we have to do something. And so what are you doing? You’re going to get rid of all the brown people in the United States? Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking of. I was thinking about it last night and I was thinking about it today. What, what are we going to do? We have to do something. We have to say something.
Joe Cross (Caddo Nation of Oklahoma) Television: ONE LIFE TO LIVE, SNL, CBS SUNDAY MORNING, THE JURY, DAVID LETTERMAN, SPIN CITY, CHRIS ROCK, THE WHITEST KIDS I KNOW, LA LAW, ESPN. Film credits include LUCKY DOG, AFFLUENZA, AIMLESS, CREATING KARMA, THE STORYTELLER, NATIVES (NYU), SMOKE BREAK (NYU), BUZZKILL, THE WAR THAT MADE AMERICA, THE STORY OF THE PEQUOT WAR, ROYAL TANENBAUM, KINSEY, A THOUSAND ROADS (signature piece for NMAI, Smithso¬nian). Theater: MACBETH (AMERINDA), POWWOW HIGHWAY (YELLOWROBE), THE HISTORY OF ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION (NORTH FOURTH ST THEATRE), WHITE WOMAN STREET (DAELAUS), INKTOMI (Public), HARVEST CEREMONY (director, Smithsonian), EARTH, SUN & MOON (Lincoln Center), and Broadway Melody 1492 (Ohio Theater). Awards: Silvercloud Outstanding Service, Metro Caddo Cultural Club, SAG Cultural Award, Fort Monmouth Heritage Award, Bergen County Community College Historic Award, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (Wiping Away the Tears-WTC). SAG/AFTRA
Gloria Miguel (Kuna/Rappahannock) Gloria studied drama at Oberlin College and is a founding member of Spiderwoman Theater. She is an actor, playwright, and educator. She has toured throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand and performed in Beijing, China at the 4th World Woman’s Conference. She received an Honorary DFA from Miami University and is a lifetime member of the Lee Strasberg Institute. Selected acting credits include Du Tu Kapsus MATERIAL WITNESS; Hanay Geiogamah GRANDMA; Tomson Highway THE REZ SISTERS; JESSICA in Edmonton, AB-nominated for a Sterling Award for Best Supporting Actress; CHOCOLATE WOMAN DREAMS THE MILKYWAY with Monique Mojica, MATERIAL WITNESS and the film CAOTIOA ANA. She was a visiting professor of drama at Brandon University in Canada and has taught drama workshops at the Navajo Nation Reservation. Her one woman show, SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW, SOME-THING BORROWED, SOMETHING BLUE, has been performed at the Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival in Toronto.
Soni Moreno (Maya/Apache/Yaqui) is originally from the Bay Area in California and studied at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. She started her career in original San Francisco production of HAIR in be the role of Chrissy. Theatre Credits: HAIR (The Revival), THE LEAF PEOPLE – INNER CITY — AMERICA SMITH — THE TRAVELS OF ALADDIN, SMOKE, DAUGHTER OF THE HILLS by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby as part of The Public Theatre’s Under the Radar Festival 2016. She is the Co-founder of First Nations acappella woman’s trio, ULALI, The group toured with Buffy Sainte-Marie and recorded with the Indigo Girls and Robbie Robertson the Red Road Ensemble. Soundtrack credits for film and television include THE L WORD I THE NATIVE AMERICANS / SMOKE SIGNALS / FOLLOW ME HOME / HOMELAND / THE GIFT / ROCKS WITH WINGS / ONE GIANT LEAP / ALCATRAZ IN NOT AN ISLAND. She was one of the artists in the Collaborative Art Installation of THIS PATH WE TRAVEL at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Designer credits – Costumes / Sets / Story Quilts for MATERIAL WITNESS / Costumes for Spiderwoman Theatre Company. She is currently recording an Album with longtime writing partner and friend, Charley Buckland.
Shelson Raymore (Cheyenne River Sioux) is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation, a Native American Storyteller, Visual Artist, Actor, Choreographer, Cultural Consultant, and an award-winning Grass Dancer. The South Dakota Native recently finished touring with Heather Henson’s AJIJAAK ON TURTLE ISLAND theatre production (2015-2018). Captivating and moving, Sheldon also starred in ABC’s Born to Explore, LEGEND OF THE DANCE with Richard Weiss, where they were the featured grass dancer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Ever the consummate keeper of tradition, they continue to cultivate their artistry, with the utmost integrity, humility, and authenticity, letting the love for their culture shine through in all that they do.
Muriel Miguel (Kuna/Rappahannock) is a choreographer, director, and actor. She is a founding member and Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theater, the longest running Indigenous feminist theater in North America. Muriel is a 2016 John S. Guggenheim Fellow; has an Honorary DFA from Miami University in Ohio; is a member of the National Theatre Conference and attended the Rauschenberg Residency in 2015. She has pioneered Spiderwoman Theater’s story weaving methodology and the development of a culturally – based Indigenous performance methodology. Choreography: THROW AWAY KIDS – Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity; Director (Selected) MATERIAL WITNESS – Spiderwoman Theater; THE SCRUBBING PROJECT – Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble and EVENING IN PARIS – Raven Spirit Dance Company. Acting: Off-Broadway – Taylor Mac’s LILY’S REVENGE; Philomena Moosetail- THE REZ SISTERS; Aunt Shadie – THE UNNATURAL AND ACCIDENTAL WOMEN; One woman shows – HOT N SOFT, TRAIL.