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Ghostlands of an Urban NDN PDF Print E-mail
Written by Neil Flowers, Editor-in-Chief   
Monday, 01 October 2007

"Ghostlands," is a solo shot written and performed by Robert Greygrass, and he is, on the evidence of this work, the Native American Spaulding Grey. Partly Lakota and partly French and Irish, Mr. Greygrass presents the terrors and promises, the joys and catastrophes, of being a person in America who is of mixed blood, or "breed" as he says. One of the many pleasures of this remarkable piece is that Mr. Greygrass is scrupulously fair in praising the good things that he's learned from Euro-American culture (things like performance art), even as he tears to shreds its blind, arrogant, Earth- and Indian-destroying ways.  

However, make no mistake, it is the Indian side of Mr. Greygrass—the spiritual perspective, sense of history, and community connections his Indianness allows—that he loves the most and makes the most use of in this sorrowful, funny, searing, trenchant, near-masterful work. Switching in and out of a dozen characters, often in spot-on dialect (German, Irish, a Lakota elder, an obtuse British woman), sometimes arguing hilariously back-and-forth with his Indian and white selves, Mr. Greygrass brings to life the Indian trickster and shapeshifter that we hear so much about. And he has a sense of irony about being Indian: At one memorable point, he twists the notion of the stoic Indian into a sharp self-conscious, postmodern moment.  

A week or so back, I saw the Chinese National Ballet perform Raise The Red Lantern at the OC Performing Arts Center. The joint crawled with glitter, gowns, and new Benz's; the tix were as upscale as the crowd. At Mr. Greygrass's show, where a ticket costs the price of a good veggie burger, there were a few pickups and small Japanese sedans in the parking lot. Theatre Unlimited seats about 25 people. The hero's costume for "Lantern" was certainly pricier than the entire production budget of "Ghostlands". Still, if you had only one night free to see one of these two shows, and despite all the lovely, world-class dancing and coups de theâtre of "Lantern," Mr. Greygrass's show would be the show to pick. It's an important piece in a way that "Lantern," an expensive bauble, could never be. Need grit in your theatre? See "Ghostlands". You'll be glad you did. 

Having said that, I have three caveats about "Ghostlands".  

First, Mr. Greygrass has a habit of laughing at his own jokes. This is mostly an acceptable part of the character he portrays, but it occurs several times too often. Second, occasionally it's not clear who the interlocutor of Mr. Greygrass's address is supposed to be. These two matters are small and may be just a case of opening-night jitters and the need for focusing the details. My third observation is that at two acts and two hours, the show is too long. To be plain: Mr. Greygrass veers dangerously close to wearing out his welcome in the opening of the second act. The first sequence of act two, for example, a narrative whose location is around a campfire, has, to put it charitably, an undercurrent of inconsequence and self-indulgence. A song he sings here, and sings well, goes on too long. Mr. Greygrass does, eventually, get the second act going, but it is unfortunate that he comes so close to torpedoing the great work he has so assiduously built in the first. It is often difficult as a performer, and perhaps especially as a creator of one's own material, to have the detachment and perspective necessary to trim a text. John Cole, the current director of "Ghostlands", has done a serviceable job of putting the show up, but the second act would profit from William Goldman's advice: "You must kill your darlings". The problematic nature of act two of  "Ghostlands" could be fixed by cutting it judiciously and playing it as films run, like Swimming to Cambodia say, that is, in one uninterrupted narrative of about ninety minutes. This approach, I believe, will change that "near-masterful" to "masterful." I look forward to seeing another production of Ghostlands of an Urban NDN after it has been trimmed. 

Incidentally, this play/performance piece, should be filmed. It's a priceless work of postmodern Americana and deserves the eternal amber of recording that film or digital can offer. 
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