By: Mandy Precious, TRP’s Director of Strategic Projects
I was privileged to e-meet Low Kee Hong, Creative Director of Manchester International Festival via a zoom talk this week where he spoke about the parlous future of the arts. Kee Hong is focused on ‘extraordinary and transformative experiences of the arts for (& with) communities.’ And this immediately made me think about We Are The Land – the Wampanoag nation’s show which has been created by the Wampanoag Tribe. It will be an extraordinary piece that has transformation stitched into its DNA.
During his talk, Kee Hong also spoke at length about the subject of colonisation and de-colonisation and the burden on people of colour in relation to this. His view was that we are in the last stage of capitalism and it was time to live change, centering instead indigenous voices and lifestyles. Not waiting for change but just doing things differently. And here, We Are The Land is doing that. Though it was a long time coming.
Kee Hong was insistent, centre indigenous people because indigenous culture is about stewarding the land (rather than exploiting it), about using what you need and no more, about prioritising community, honouring elders, telling stories, and valuing the matriarchal at least equally to the patriarch: in other words, the antithesis of western dominant culture.
It seemed so neat that the Wampanoag Nation, the people of the Light and one of the Eastern tribes of North American should be visiting TRP in a very short time to deliver their show, as I was listening to how the world should be. Because We Are The Land absolutely centres the indigenous voice, we are simply providing the platform. But I am getting ahead of myself.
10 years ago (at least) there was a realisation that 2020 was the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, and this should be commemorated. There was a shady history of this on at least one side of the Atlantic – for example, at the 350th anniversary where Wamsutta, a Wampanoag chief, was silenced and unable to speak his truth. This time it would be different. The Wampanoag – the tribal nation who have occupied what is now called Massachusetts (where the Pilgrims landed) for millennia – would play a key role.
By 2015, we were beginning to lay the foundation for what we as a theatre would do. A community play we thought – including Plymothians and the Wampanoag together although it had already been decided that two local Devonians would be commissioned to write and compose the piece, then called This Land. Not co-created or inclusive.
My first phone conversation with the Wampanoag was in late 2015 when myself and a colleague – naively as it turns out – asked if they’d like to join in with the show.
“Can I just stop you there?” One of the elders said, “You can’t tell this story without us.”
Which was true: of course, we couldn’t. We apologised. They agreed to meet us.
Our first trip (the Airbnb smelt of skunk – once smelt never forgotten) saw us meeting with the Wampanoag advisory committee in Mashpee, Massachusetts, when another elder said, “How do we know we can trust you?”
Fortunately (unfortunately) we’d just had to abandon another script written for a community so I could say, with confidence: “if you don’t like what is written, it can be re-written.” If I had my time again, it would be time to ask them and their wisdom to lead but we were too far gone in the commissioning process.
We held a series of meetings to ascertain the interest in the show, on that trip, and many people turned up. We took down names. Came home.
So, a creative team was assembled – a brilliant, talented team – but at no point did any member of either the Plymouth or the Wampanoag community have a say in whether the team was to their taste.
Time and again we returned to the States, took in the script, changed it. Moulded it with the Tribe, re-built it led by Alan Lane.
Feedback was given. Feedback was taken on board.
And then we got tantalisingly close to getting over the line: to putting that play on the stage – but 2020 was what it was (& the irony was not lost on us), and then 2021 came and went too. We kept contact with the Tribe, and others over Zoom.
2022 saw the arrival of a new CEO at TRP, James Mackenzie-Blackman who just couldn’t quite wrap his head around what the show with the Wampanoag was and why we were still doing it. We talked. A lot. Round and round about its value against its cost. The return on investment. Why we had 90 people from Plymouth and only 30 from the Tribe. Round and round. Was it still the right thing? Should we still be doing it?…. Round and round.
Until, thinking we’d never reach a compromise, I said, “And so here we are, making a decision about the Wampanoag, without the Wampanoag in the room. Again.”
And to James’ great credit he said, “Alright then. Let’s go. Let’s ask them.”
So, we did.
And to a man and woman, the Wampanoag said, “Yes, we’d like that platform you’re offering. But the Mayflower has sailed…”
And so, from April 2022 to now, the Wampanoag have taken the creative lead in the process. They have worked together led by two creatives, Harman Deetz, and Siobhan Brown. We Are The Land tells the story of the Wampanoag from pre-contact, through Christianisation, the Woodlot riots, and modern impacts of colonialism, creating the piece from their perspective. Centering their voices, their interpretation, their words, songs, and movement.
And we are throwing all our technical and production support behind it. Supporting the company and creatives to make the very best of shows.
And as the show gets ever closer I feel that we are have learned a lot: about power, and relinquishing it. About who gets to tell stories. About who should tell them. About stepping back. About enabling communities to say what needs to be said. About taking your self out of the picture.
Somehow, by some circuitous but necessary route: we got there. We found away to enable the Wampanoag to tell their story in the way that they wanted.
Watch a video featuring the cast and creative team: