The World Premiere of "Indian Head" Fires Up Audiences at Luna Stage

Feb 17, 2017

Playwright Nikkole Salter and actress Carla-Rae open up about the provocative play
Credit Luna Stage for WBGO

Indian Head is a provocative play by Obie Award-Winner Nikkole Salter.   Indian Head was commissioned in partnership with the NJPAC Stage Exchange, a program of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.  It is currently wowing audiences at Luna Stage in West Orange, New Jersey.

When a Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape teen is caught vandalizing property in protest of the school's Indian mascot, her mother cuts a deal to help her atone with the school. But when their tribe's traditions clash with the championship bound high school football team's, the two worlds are left wondering how - or if - they can co-exist.

Indian Head asks audiences to take a hard, honest look at how we appropriate culture and the ways in which we honor and exploit tradition.  Salter says when she got the commission she was asked to pitch an idea:

"I wanted to bring the Native American community in New Jersey to the stage.  I felt like their stories are unheard and were stage worthy."

Salter is also the author of Carnaval and Lines in the Dust.

"The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people are the people who I use as the basis of this play, down in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and they are Christian.  The play brings up a point, "well how Christian is not the nature of your spiritual tradition, how are you Christian?" But they are like "we are Christian everyday, in our daily practice and we honor it as a spiritual tradition that we carry on and carry forth, you use our traditional sacred items for fashion shows, costumes on Halloween and music festivals in summertime and that doesn't honor where it usually comes from."  So I think that's the distinction between those two things."

Carla-Rae plays a mother of the teen in Indian Head.  After an extensive search, she was selected to star in the show:

"I'm Seneca-Mohawk-French Canadian from the Iroquis people of Upstate New York.  In Canada it wasn't popular back when my parents were born to be Native American, and if you had anything else you could hide behind, that's what you did.  Finding my culture has been difficult at best.  It wasn't until I was my late 20's that I was told who I am by my father.  And it has not set well with my older siblings and the rest of the family mostly because we assimilated. We hid in plain sight. We were told you don't say that."

But Carla-Rae felt at that moment she was completely liberated:

"I threw my arms around him, I was so grateful.  And two weeks later he died suddenly. But that has been such a powerful thing to me, to have my identity.   Even my oldest sister would say to me that "dad did you a disservice," and  said "No, dad did what he did because he wanted me to know."  There's a passion in me to not only find my own culture but to help others who are in my same situation." 

Carla-Rae and playwright Nikkole Salter share their feelings with WBGO's Doug Doyle about the world premiere of Indian Head
Credit Ken Downey, Jr. for WBGO

Carla-Rae says she brings that passion to the Luna Stage production and a sense of educating audiences about how mascots can be so offensive:

"To be acknowledged as a "redskin" or acknowledged as whatever the moniker or mascot's name is, is degrading.  And people of the American Indian culture, it's not a new issue for us.  It's like saying hello, it's not who were are, so could we talk about this.  You'll hear a lot of people say "just get over it."  Okay, now we really need to talk.   They're using our images for sport, and that's not acceptable."

Salter knows not everyone will get the same message when watching her new play:

"When you come see this play, what I hope people get or are able to see are the ways in which we all live in our bubbles, especially when we talk about issues.  It's when you are able to see the other side with humanity, whether you agree or not, at least you can understand."

Indian Head is directed by Kareem Fahmy.  Other members of the cast are Sydney Battle, Ollie Corchado and Donavin Dain Scott.  The show runs through March 5th.

Click above to hear WBGO host Doug Doyle's in-depth interview with Nikkole Salter and Carla-Rae.