Now that's a different story

Jews and Native Americans share common bonds in ‘Palestine, New Mexico’

By Jana J. Monji 01/15/2010

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For more than a decade, Pasadena-resident Geraldine Keams has been bringing Native American legends to elementary schools in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles, and as far as Orange County and Washington DC. Until Jan. 24, she’s part of an ensemble cast at the Mark Taper Forum, telling a different kind of western story in the world premiere of Culture Clash’s “Palestine, New Mexico.”
 
Originally born and raised on a Northern Arizona Navajo reservation, Keams said storytelling was a part of her childhood.
“I grew up on the reservation without television,” she explained in a recent telephone interview. “When I go home, there are no cell phones, minimal electricity,” she added. “I actually go home for peace and quiet. When I come back, it’s very noisy in the city and everything goes a hundred times faster. People are very impatient.”
 
Keams recalls her grandmother being a great storyteller. 
 
“It’s part of our oral tradition. It was entertainment with a lot of humor involved in the trickster tales, tales about the seasons and the animal world.”
 
After studying theater at the University of Arizona and spending time in New York City as a member of Café LaMama, she came to Pasadena. Keams appeared in the 1976 film “The Outlaw Josey Wales” with Clint Eastwood and in Disney’s 2005 TV movie “Buffalo Dreams.”  More recently, she was on “Sons of Anarchy” and will appear in HBO’s “Big Love.”
 
In “Palestine, New Mexico,” Keams plays 15-year-old Maria. “I love the character — her energy, her down-to-earth quality and her practical side,” Keams exclaimed. “She’s very humorous. I think the description of her was quick like a jackrabbit and the trickster of the rez.”
 
Those familiar with Culture Clash (Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya) will be prepared for irreverent comedy interwoven with social commentary. Is that possible when the play takes on both the current conflict in Iraq and the re-examination of Native Americans and Jewish immigration?
 
In more than two decades, the three have taken on Aristophanes (“The Birds”) for some contemporary skit comedy, the history of Dodger Stadium (“Chavez Ravine” in 2003) and the age-old Southern California struggle over water (“Water and Power” in 2006).
 
Written by Montoya — who plays Top Hat, a marginalized character who is only part Native American — the play revolves around a white female Army captain (Kirsten Potter) who promised to hand-deliver a letter from a soldier who died under her command to his father, Chief Birdsong (Russell Means). Somehow this involves an AWOL soldier Suarez (Justin Rain) and a long feud between the Birdsongs and the Suarezes.
 
Playwright Montoya suspects his New Mexican roots go back to the Jewish people whom the conquistadors brought to the New World as slaves. Some of those Jews escaped and mingled with the Native Americans. Even for a storyteller like Keams, who incorporates stories from various tribes, this was a new facet of Native American history. 
 
“I knew that the Spanish took a lot of Arab people back to Spain. I didn’t know about all the things that happened coming this way (the Southwest). That was surprising and new to me personally,” she said, adding that the play has opened some new dialog with her friends. “I actually had friends who were Arab in the audience who said there were also Muslims on the ships as well.”
 
Besides helping re-imagine the Old West, Keams felt this play was also significant because “there are no plays that I know of that are focused on Native American culture in a major American stage production currently. That’s why I’m so happy about Montoya putting real Native American actors on stage and allowing Native Americans to inject real Native American culture into the play — and giving Native American actors jobs. I really commend Montoya for that.”
 
Keams is quick to mention the Autry National Center of the American West’s Native Voices program. Established in 1999, Native Voices has been devoted to developing and producing new plays by Native American playwrights.
 
In 2006, a group started the L.A. Skin Fest that features works by Native American youth from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
 
New Native American narrative works may, like Montoya’s “Palestine, New Mexico,” broaden outlooks because while Keams feels it is “up to audience members to decide what the play is about,” the overall theme is familiar: The constant search for identity in a world that constantly changes. Sometimes a little knowledge can alter one’s concept of self or history.

“Palestine, New Mexico” continues through Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are $20 to $45. For more information, call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.

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