This year, several of the shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival begin by thanking not only the subscribers and members in the audience, but the Native American tribes who once lived on this land in Southern Oregon, the Shasta and the Takelma people. It’s fitting that the Festival’s commitment to inclusion has at last brought them closer to home, to considering the role of their home state in a long history of injustice. But onstage, this season’s plays that look westward propose a different, intriguing vision of what the American West can mean: they propose a lost, brief moment of promise. There was an instant, these plays suggest, when everything might have been different– when westward expansion might have been the beginning of something new, not the repetition of something brutal and as old as the idea of America itself.
This idea finds cheerful but surprisingly nuanced expression in Bill Rauch’s production of Oklahoma!, which changes the genders of two of the leads to turn Laurey and Curly into a lesbian couple (played by Royer Bockus and Tatiana Wechsler, respectively) and cowboy Will Parker’s (Jordan Barbour) beau into Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens), a boy who just can’t say no. Lyrics and pronouns are altered accordingly throughout, but nothing else is changed, including the other Oklahomans’ cheerful acceptance of these young couples– and of Aunt Eller (played by Bobbi Charlton and is not, according to Rauch, a trans performer playing a cis character, but a trans character). Wechsler and Barbour are both black, and the ensemble is diverse as well, including Native American actor Román Zaragoza (who, delightfully, also played a gay man in the early American West last season).
This idyllic setting is described by Rauch as “an alternate utopian community that reflects progress and acceptance for our time.” It is, obviously, a fantasy– though no more a fantasy than the original Oklahoma!, a vision of Western expansion that saw the fundamental conflict over the land as one between ranchers and farmers. Rauch’s fantasy of radical acceptance, however, lends a very different tenor to the show’s probing of the odd liminal space inhabited by people who will “soon be living in a brand-new state”– but aren’t yet. That in-between status that allows for Curly’s abrupt and highly dubious trial for murdering his rival Judd, a sense that they aren’t really, fully bound by the laws of the country they’re soon to be part of. For now, they can still handle things their own way– and when the crime they’re adjudicating is a black lesbian murdering a white man in self-defense, given what we know about the country they’ll be joining, it suddenly seems for the best that Curly isn’t hauled off to answer to an official United States judge and jury.
Idris Goodwin’s The Way The Mountain Moved, a gorgeously messy new play, does not tie off its threads so neatly. Exploring the intersection of various characters in the deserts of what will someday be Utah, Goodwin’s west is diverse and chaotic: Mormons, Mexicans, scientists, and soldiers collide and cross paths and force one another to question their purposes and desires. There is violence, and death: the play begins with a Native American man (Christopher Salazar) insisting he cannot continue to help guide the military forces of westward exploration despite his initial promise to do so, and ends with a woman (Shyla Lefner) clutching a rifle and insisting that only the weapons of the enemy can save them. And yet, as director May Adrales writes in the program, it is “a moment in history where America might have changed its course.” In the railroad he has been sent to help plan, a botanist (Rex Young) sees hope for a country united, for the triumph of the scientific rationality that argues that all races are equal, all cultures nuanced and worthy of study and respect. A pair of runaway slaves (Rodney Gardiner and Christiana Clark) steadfastly maintain their Mormon faith despite their church’s tacit tolerance of slavery, and use that faith as a bridge of understanding. A mother chooses loss rather than vengeance on the Native American tribe that may or may not have kidnapped her son. A soldier is transformed by an experience with the wilderness that he cannot explain. Suppose, Goodwin seems to ask, these people had shaped the future of the West?
Both of these plays primarily focus on white and black people– the play of the season that is centered on the Native American experience is partly set (fittingly) in Oklahoma, but partly tells the history of the Lenape in New York, and focuses on a much earlier stage of violent conquest. Perhaps the potential alternate future that these plays tentatively suggest is irresponsibly naive, and only able to be imagined when the Native American perspective is erased. Perhaps it’s impossible to do better the second time, once a country’s hands are stained with slavery and blood. I find myself thinking of the common liberal refrain these days, that this– (insert absurd and cruel action by our government)– isn’t who we are. Which can seem laughable: hasn’t xenophobic cruelty long been exactly who America is, exactly what it’s done? But maybe that statement is really a way of saying, this isn’t who we want to be. We can be better. And by that token, can it be a good thing to look backwards and say, we could have been better?
And yet, tellingly, both of these plays are set in a moment before the land they take place on was American land. It is, as Adrales and the characters of Oklahoma express, a mere instant of in-between– just a flash before, in becoming the United States, they become the worst of the United States, too. But first, maybe, there was a moment when it could have been otherwise.