“The Frybread Queen” is Crowned at Montana Rep

By Arigon Starr
News From Indian Country October 2010

 Photo by
Carlos Betancourt
Carolyn Dunn's exciting new play completes a successful workshop run at the University of Montana.

Greetings from a cool, breezy Missoula, Montana. It’s been quite a while since I’ve contributed to the pages of News From Indian Country and it’s a pleasure to be back with you. There have been a lot of personal upheavals lately – but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Theater work has brought me to western Montana – specifically “The Frybread Queen,” a brand new play from Muscogee Creek/Choctaw playwright Carolyn Dunn.

Carolyn is a bright, vivacious woman with tattoos and multiple piercings. At first glance, you might mistake her for the lead singer in a punk rock/alternative band...and you would be so wrong. Dunn recently received her doctorate in American Studies & Ethnicity from the University of Southern California and just accepted a Managing Director position for the newly created American Indian Resource Center and Cultural Resource Centers at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Recognizing there was a shortage of acting roles for Native women of various ages, Carolyn created “The Frybread Queen,” a four-act, four person play that features a Navajo grandmother and granddaughter, a Cherokee woman from California and a Creek Indian lawyer. The women are brought together near Page, Arizona following a tragic death. Love, loss, tragedy and redemption go together like frybread and grease – and Carolyn utilizes her poetic skills to tell a compelling drama that transcends Indian Country. The mixed audiences who have experienced the play have repeatedly told the actors and producers how much Dunn's play has touched them.

The road to Montana Rep was paved by Native Voices at the Autry, who have had “The Frybread Queen” in development over the past two years.
Additionally, “Frybread’s” director Jere Lee Hodgin became a supporter of the play after reading an early draft. Native Voices teamed with the University of Montana and Montana Rep to produce a fully-staged version of the play. “The Frybread Queen” will also be performed in Los Angeles as a workshop this November at the Autry National Center and will have an official world premiere in 2011.

The Montana cast includes Jane Lind (Aleut), a veteran stage and screen actress based in Billings; Lily Gladstone (Blackfeet/Nez Perce), a recent graduate from the University of Montana’s drama program; and Tiffany Meiwald (Chippewa-Cree), a current student at the University and a first-time actor. These actors are strong and true – and each performance they’ve grown more confident and playful – especially Tiffany Meiwald. Lily Gladstone is an up-and-comer and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of her in the future. She plans to continue the work of creating Native theater projects in Montana. Jane Lind is a professional with a capital “P” – and has been captivating us with her memories of her early days in New York theater with folks like Helen Mirren and Peter Brook - and her days with “Black Elk Speaks” and the American Indian Dance Theater.

I’m portraying the role of Annalee Hayne, a feisty, take-no-prisoners Muscogee Creek laywer. As many of you know, I'm an enrolled Kickapoo – but my mother Ruth Cornell Wahpecome is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma. When Carolyn was crafting the play, she included a lot of Creek detail to the character of Annalee. It’s been a joy to put the laughter and gusto from my aunties and cousins in my character for audiences who might never meet an authentic Okie Indian. Believe me, there are enough “Aaays” and “Buhs” in the show to satisfy the toughest Indian from Tulsa.

The biggest crowd pleasers in “The Frybread Queen” are the monologues each character delivers about how to make frybread. Carolyn has crafted unique “frybread recipe” speeches for each woman that reveal a lot about their world views. My character Annalee says “Sing while you’re doing it. You never know when it will be your last time.”

Although “The Frybread Queen” has wrapped in Montana, it is sure to live on for many years and generations to come. Rob Caisley, the dramaturge for “The Frybread Queen,” likens the play to a Native version of “Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning and ground-breaking play. Like “Raisin,”

“The Frybread Queen” features a powerful family-driven drama that also reveals a great deal about the challenges we still face as Native Americans.

Long live “The Frybread Queen!”