America touts itself as a land of freedom wherein its citizens are able to fully celebrate their diverse cultures. However, for Native Americans, this freedom has been hard to grasp. Storytelling is the core of what keeps indigenous culture alive, but the story of one of the most famous Native Americans, Pocahontas, has been white-washed by Hollywood.
This is where Serenbe Playhouse saw an opportunity. All season, they have been showcasing various cultures throughout history that have helped shape America into the nation it is today. One culture that has yet to be approached theatrically is that of the indigenous people of America — until now. The True Story of Pocahontas, written by Kara Morrison and directed by Tara Moses, is a take on Pocahontas that breaks away from previous versions that glamorize British involvement in her life. The show runs at Serenbe Playhouse June 13–September 1.
Pocahontas — more accurately called Matoaka, was a member of the Powhatan tribe (also spelled Powatan and Powhaten), a tribe that resided in eastern Virginia when the English settled Jamestown in the early 1600s. When it comes to telling her story, Morrison emphasizes that this version of Pocahontas does not feature buckskin fringe dresses and teepees. Instead, Morrison explains, she plans to avoid giving into the audience’s potential preconceived notions.
“Pocahontas is definitely the hero of this story,” says Morrison, who is a member of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe of North Carolina. “Other versions paint the English as the ‘saviors’ who saved her from her savage ways. In reality, that’s not true. We may like other versions, but are they really being told from her perspective? There’s not a lot of versions that show that she went through a lot of hard things, but she was resilient. That’s something I hope people take away.”
In order to tell this story, the cast and crew underwent cultural sensitivity training. The cast began with a traditional ceremony meant to create a shared experience that would begin everyone off on the same foot about what is to be accomplished with this performance. Morrison, Moses and lead actress Maddie Easley said in their interviews that they grew up primarily around non-Native American people and felt the weight of being the first Native American person with whom people interact. This production is an opportunity to lift some of that weight. The show itself will begin with the Powhatan creation story.
“How I’ve been directing it is very rooted in indigenous storytelling,” says Moses, who is a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Mvskoke Nation of Oklahoma. “It’s a kinesthetic experience, connecting with the space and our bodies. We have a river sequence where we have a beautiful piece of blue fabric that comes out that echoes the Disney scene, but our scene is rooted in Matoaka’s land and its beauty. It adds another layer of levity and harmony that exists with the tragic nature of the play.”
Honoring Matoaka’s trials and triumphs comes with a great deal of responsibility. It falls on Easley to make a person most people know as a 2-D character burst off the stage. Most people think of the Disney characterization voiced by Irene Bedard, but Easley makes it clear that she does not look like or act like that version of Pocahontas.
“Disney created her as a being that’s not recognizable as human. She could leap from great heights and wore little clothes,” says Easley, who is part of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. “While that impression can have positive aspects, it’s mostly skewed people’s perceptions. [This show] will challenge [audiences] and give them enough that they will go home and make efforts to go out and meet other native people.”
Building bridges to connect non-Native American people to indigenous culture is a huge goal for the entire cast and crew. According to Morrison, there is written documentation describing Pocahontas as a playful, well-liked child who misbehaved from time to time but in an endearing way. To that end, Serenbe is also including links in the show bill where people can find out which Native American land their homes are built upon.
“I would love parents of younger children to expose their children to the real histories,” Morrison says. “They can go visit tribal lands, some of which have museums that will share and teach culture; it’s just a matter of asking for it. We [Native Americans] are not always on the forefront of people’s minds. I’d like people to be proactive in seeking out these stories.”