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Artists strive to decolonize indigeneity

‘Side Show Freaks and Circus Injuns’ defies Western artistic norms through theater

Three artists will present “Side Show Freaks and Circus Injuns,” a play centered on indigenous people, Friday at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. Described by LeAnne Howe, one of the artists, as a “decolonizing process,” the piece seeks to resist Western modes of thought and performance.

“We challenged ourselves to put indigenous knowledge, indigenous ways of knowing (and) indigenous structures in the center of our practice,” said Monique Mojica, an artist-in-residence at Brown for the month of November and one of the collaborators on the piece. “Simultaneous to creating an organic piece of theater, simultaneous to working collaboratively, we are also dismantling and unlearning structures that come from Eurocentric performance.”

The artists, Mojica, Howe and Jorge Luis Morejón, first started thinking about creating the piece in 2008 when they came together at the University of Illinois. All three come from different disciplines. Mojica is primarily an actor, Howe a writer and Morejón a dancer. They wanted to create something collaboratively that would “decolonize native theater and ourselves,” Howe said.

In spring 2016, Mojica came to campus to deliver a lecture, and she expressed an interest in continuing work on the piece at Brown. Patricia Ybarra, chair of the theatre arts and performance studies department and a fan of Mojica’s work, was supportive, and Lilian Mengesha GS and Assistant Professor of American Studies Adrienne Keene secured funding to bring the artists to campus. Friday’s event is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

“I wanted to have a more critical conversation about art and indigeneity in the department, and I thought (Mojica) was the exact right artist to do that,” Ybarra said.

Similarly, Sarah d’Angelo, assistant professor of TAPS, wrote in an email to The Herald, “There are only a handful of institutions in the United States embracing indigenous systems of knowledge and creation. Given the recent social, environmental and political events, there couldn’t be a better time for our community to come together to honor and experience the value and significance of this performance.”

The inspiration for the piece comes partly from the experiences of Howe and Mojica’s family members. Howe’s great-aunt had a horseback act in a circus, and Mojica’s mother performed and “was displayed” in a sideshow in Brooklyn as a child. As such, the work of decolonizing is very personal for the artists. “We set out to dislodge colonialism from our bodies,” Mojica said. “That has everything to do with the colonizer’s gaze on our bodies. We want to reverse that gaze that sees us as freaks.”

Morejón, the director of the piece, said that working with Howe and Mojica presented a challenge, as he comes from the mainstream theater world that the play means to resist. Despite the challenge, Morejón said the process has been educational. “I’m learning to decolonize through them. I bring terms that are immediately identified by the two of them as part of the process that we’re trying to decolonize. … Every time I say something that is not part of the process of decolonization, the creative process stops because then we have to stop to clarify what I’m trying to say. So I keep saying, ‘Oh, that’s semantics.’”

“And we keep saying, ‘No!’” Mojica said.

All three artists expressed gratitude and affection toward each other, noting how essential each one has been to the process. Mojica also expressed joy about Brown’s hosting and funding of the process. In most theater, she said, “there are production schedules. This is way outside that. I want to acknowledge Brown for believing this work was important.”

“Side Show Freaks and Circus Injuns” will take place Nov. 18 between 4 and 6 p.m. in Studio One at the Granoff Center.

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