Calling Larissa Fasthorse’s “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” controversial doesn’t begin to cover it.
This work — it’s receiving its world premiere on Kansas City Rep’s Copaken Stage as part of the Origin KC new works festival — is a scalding cauldron of race and resentment, poverty and mental illness.
Written by a Native American, it offers a portrait of reservation life so hopeless that many young residents prefer suicide to growing up there.
It is by turns in-your-face realistic and bleakly humorous (among its flaws is a disorienting inconsistency of tone); in a similar vein, it introduces characters whom we’re inclined to view one way, only to reveal that our initial impressions are wrong. (Or are they?)
Now that the grandfather who raised them has died, twins Calvin (Christopher Reed Brown) and Journey (Roseanne Supernault) are the last surviving members of their tribe. They occupy grandpa’s cluttered double-wide out on the prairie on the Lakota Reservation.
(Antje Ellerman’s uber-detailed set is practically a character in itself; you half expect a prairie rattler to come slithering out of the junk-filled crawlspace over which the mobile home rests.)
Calvin cut short his studies at Yale to return to care for his sister, an intelligent woman with severe emotional problems. Journey’s life seems to be one long wallow in anger over the fate of Native Americans, punctuated with manic moments and childlike outbursts.
To placate her, Calvin has agreed to her proposed suicide pact — when they can’t take any more misery they’ll pull the plug.
The twins’ insular world is ripped open with the arrival of two white strangers. The smooth-tongued Evan (Amy Attaway) and her vaguely threatening companion/bodyguard Rebel (Jason Chanos) come looking for grandpa, claiming he had agreed to perform native dances at a big powwow and political event they’re planning.
As Evan explains it, her grandfather and the twins’ grandfather have a shared history. Now she’d like Journey and Calvin to take the old man’s place at the big event.
Just one problem. Evan and Rebel represent the Ku Klux Klan, or rather its latest incarnation, something called the Free Americans.
No white sheets, they explain. No violence. No hatred.
Evan says that when she assumes leadership of this new Klan she’ll purge it of retro and redneck influences, introducing a sort of new-fangled, peace-loving Apartheid in which each race happily will keep to itself, preserving its culture.
Wouldn’t Journey and Calvin love to be part of something like that?
There’s no shortage of perversity in Fasthorse’s play. Journey, initially outraged by what the visitors represent, slowly comes to see this new Klan as a way for her to publicize her own views on Native American life (but not before trying to kill the white folk with a handgun).
Far from being a stereotypical race baiter, Attaway’s Evan is an attractive, well-spoken young woman who appears to be utterly sincere in her belief that we can all get along as long as we keep apart.
Rebel admits the he grew up in the old Klan, but that he’s been transformed by Evan’s new vision. (Well, perhaps not totally transformed. Frustrated by the twins and especially by Journey’s mercurial behavior, he fumes that “natural selection should have run its course by now.”)
Under Sam Pinkleton’s direction “Crazy Horse” delivers a tense 90 minutes. But when it’s all over, just where exactly does Fasthorse stand? Is this new improved Klan a good idea? Is there a way out for tribal members mired in poverty?
Your guess is as good as mine.