William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.
A member of the Assiniboine people, Mr. Yellow Robe, Jr. is a Playwright, Director, Poet, Actor, Writer, and Educator from the Fort Peck Indian reservation located in northeastern Montana. He is the author of over forty one-act and full-length plays, many of which have been produced by companies such as Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, and the Public Theatre in New York. Presently, an adjunct faculty member in the English Department at the University of Maine and a Faculty Affiliate of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. Mr. Yellow Robe, Jr., with Dr. Margo Lukens of the University of Maine, completed the book, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers: And Other Untold Stories, a collection of Mr. Yellow Robe’s full-length plays. His other book, Where the Pavement Ends, a collection of his one-act plays was published in 2001. Mr. Yellow Robe is a member of the Penumbra Theater Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, Ensemble Studio Theater in New York, and a Board of Advisors for Red Eagle Soaring Theater Company (a Native youth theater company) of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Yellow Robe has garnered honors including a Princess Grace Foundation Theater fellowship, the Playwright’s Center Jerome Fellowship, and a Native Writers' Circle of the Americas First Nations Book Award for Prose. His plays include “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers,” “A Stray Dog,” “Falling Distance,” “A Great Thing,” “Native American Paranormal Society,” “Better-n-Indins,” “Pieces of Us: How the Lost Find Home,” “Sneaky,” “Blood of the Rez. Paper Wars,” “New Forest Order,” “How Tribal are You?,” “The Council,” “The Star Quilter,” “The Body Guards,” “A Broken Bottle-A Broken Family,” “The Independence of Eddie Rose,” and “The Pendleton Blanket.”
For the first eighteen years of your life you grew up on a reservation. During those years, how did you become aware of your abilities, your identity and heritage?
I learned my identity in fourth grade. I had a white teacher who grabbed me by my hair. We were spelling the fifty states and I had mis-spelled Tennessee, and she grabbed me and faced me and said: “Is that all your Indians do is sit in your teepees and make beads!” It’s what I have had heard during my whole life. I was really horrible as a student. I couldn’t stay in school because basically, as a Native kid, it was hard for me to feel engaged in school, and everything that was being taught had nothing to offer me about my culture even though the school was established on Native land. I had been arrested for truancy when I was in the 6th grade. My teacher caught me skipping school. That’s when I wrote my first play as a school assignment.
I wanted to act at that time and they were doing plays in school. But we weren’t allowed to have speaking roles, I was always a tree. I never had a chance to do a lead role. Ironically, I directed some of the shows but l didn’t get a chance to act. The first play I wrote was a play about Cleopatra. Ironically, the night before we did it, “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor had been on TV. Ironically, years later, when I had my first professional reading with the Native American Theatre Ensemble in L.A. with Hanay Geiogamah, in ‘85, I get an envelope in the mail, it contains the two plays I wrote for Ms. Dorothy Grose’s sixth-grade elementary class. The two plays were basically rip-offs of ABC movies – the play based on “Cleopatra,” the second one about Hercules.
Theater really was an art form that was limited out west. In Montana, theatre was predominantly white, everything was geared for a white audience. I choose the word, ‘white,’ as color was a racial divide for acting and theater in my life. What’s always amazing is that some theaters tell you what Native people are, what Native people look like, what Native people sound like, what things are good for Native people, and it’s very frightening because it’s sort of like Hollywood, in that Hollywood did that for decades in dealing with Native people. And to see some theater companies taking that stance is very frightening.
I witness wonderful actors, a lot of Native American actors who can sing and dance but they’re denied access to the stage. You really had to push to get recognized when I was a student, and it hasn’t changed a whole lot today. I’ve always had a problem of basically working through someone’s misconceptions and stereotypes about Native people before we could actually work on a play of mine.
Who were inspirations for you?
August Wilson the most. I think that his work is an overall inspiration, because the one play that really gets to me is “The Piano Lesson,” that play, I can understand a lot of that, and a lot of it I can identify with because they remind me of family members. It’s a great play. In fact, one of my plays, “A Stray Dog,” is sort of influenced by August Wilson’s Piano Lesson.
Hanay Geiogamah was a big influence, Phillip Gan Kotanda, Jose Rivera, David Henry Hwang, Suzan-Lori Parks, Luis Valdez, and I have to say Eugene O'Neill’s work made a big impact – Shakespeare, I also read the Greeks, Euripides, Aristophanes.
You began with a non-Indian professor, Dr. Rolland Meinholtz, who had been among the first instructors at New Mexico’s Institute of American Indian Arts, learning playwriting, acting and directing. You also worked with John Kauffman, and Hanay Geiogamah of the Native American Ensemble Theatre. When were you first introduced to what we refer to “Western theatre”?
Dr. Meinholtz taught me to respect the art form. He gave me an understanding of Euro-American history and I acknowledged it and respected it. He taught me to look for the moments within the script which are the transitions, and he taught Native-American Theatre was a very valid form of expression.
Ironically, I entered theater as an actor at the University of Montana. I would audition for every role that came up, every project, a directing project, acting project, whatever it was. One time a student director said, “Bill, you’re a good actor, but we don’t have any Indian roles.” When I started writing my plays and tried to do them at the University of Montana, they told me, “Bill, it’s a good play, but we don’t have any Indian actors.”
Now John Kauffman had started out as an actor with the Red Earth Theatre Company in Seattle, Washington, he was also with the Seattle Children’s Theatre, Empty Space Theatre in Seattle, and then he was the Artistic Director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. John did a play of mine. He moved with such grace and beauty on stage. It was phenomenal when he commissioned me to do a play called “The Council.” Tragically, we lost John to AIDS. I never saw a man move with such grace – he represented to me the humanity of theatre.
Hanay showed me the complexity of theater. He developed the ensemble there and the Native American Indian Registry for Arts Organization was established by Will Sampson to help Native Americans to have workshops. Hanay found in order to keep a cast, and to pay for a small place, you could get paid more in films, and he moved in that direction.
You and Dr. Margo Lukens, University of Maine, completed the book, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers: And Other Untold Stories, a collection of your full-length plays.
Playwright Vicki Lynn Mooney with William S. YellowRobe, Jr.
It happened in 2003-4. She brought her students to see my play, and she asked me if I’d come up and see her. I found out the school where her son went was on Penobscot land, and I also learned they didn’t offer a course in Native American literature until she came there to teach. She began classes and read plays; she encouraged them to do readings from her group. They formed a Native American theatre company that was able to sustain itself and it encouraged other people to form their own. We got a lot of requests for these plays when I went on tour with Trinity Rep and everywhere we stopped I was asked for a copy of this play. That’s the problem with Native American theatre. An isolation occurs and we just don’t have the means to get the word out.
The Public produced a staged reading of your play, “Thieves: in the Red Way,” in association with the New York-based company, American Indian Community House. When did you begun writing it?
It was when I was a student at University of Montana. All the white students already had dreams about the celebration of a wonderful performance and I was always in terror. I was the ‘odd one out.’
I have been able to present other works at The Public, first when Joe Papp had been there, and then with Oskar Eustis – they were interested in doing my work, bringing it into the theatre, to the community. I feel these plays are an important legacy for young Native actors. I also feel the work of those before us who have come and made their sacrifices; they gave us the freedom of choice. That’s what’s important about theatre – it’s where you can go and see real thinking characters and engage an audience in something that will give them an actual experience.
I hope I can provide some clarity, or provide a possible solution to the conflict we face in our daily lives. Theater has an incredible capacity to do tremendous healing, in healing an individual, a community, and I think it comes from trust and respect. With my plays, I sometimes wonder if I’m doing it for community, but I look upon it as part of my responsibility.
What do you continually learn about yourself and the process of writing?
My weaknesses and frailties, my arrogance; it takes a boldness to write. I actually think I’m privileged. I think I’m lucky to get my plays done, it’s humbling. I feel it’s been pretty good when I’m able to get a reading or a production a year. When I go to conferences, they’ve always been amazing to me in that I’ve been treated so well. I have to remember I have the privilege of being here in this beautiful community and having the honor of being listened to.
It’s all been a blessing. I have diabetes and had a heart procedure so it’s all been a blessing. I know I’m writing for a lot of audiences who are not Native American, and may not understand what I'm saying, so I try and be as clear as I can to make it accessible for them. I write because this communication is one of the most peaceful form of communication’s we have.
How would you describe the oral tradition that’s carried forth?
In acting you can learn from hearing other stories from those who have played a role before. It applies within the art form of writing plays. Working with Hanay I would ask him questions about the exchange of information. He had great information about other actors. How they comforted themselves when faced with frustrations, what they had to overcome – it’s necessary we share that kind of information.
What are your aspirations for your plays and what’s possible for young Native American artists?
When I’ve written a play, I’ve given it a skeleton, I put flesh on it and basically I’m building a house with a frame and when it’s put on, then it’s like wood stripped to the bones. The best thing I can do is to remind myself to examine what I’m doing. I’ve tried to be more careful. I talk to the director to see where their head is. When I talk about the play itself, I talk in a way so everyone can understand.
When I work with Native communities I work with very raw talent; they have no inhibitions, no fear, and they want to train but the question is where do they go? I pushed for a national indigenous center. I’d love to see it in New York City. All kinds pf young people would benefit from it.
I’d also like to see a school for performing arts for indigenous artists. I talked with the American Arts Society about creating that kind of school.
Another project addresses gender roles. I worked on developing a piece about the difference between being tough and being able to survive, and being mean, which is to be vicious and spiteful, and how people confuse the two. The title is “Indian Men Are Men, Indian Woman Are Tough.” I mean, for instance, women can actually give birth to children; we men, can’t endure pain like that.
How does art sustain the human spirit?
I tell young people learn to tell stories, tell your stories the best way you know how, be honest, tell the truth when you share these stories because they‘re no longer just yours; it’s how we can all nurture one another. Do it through your heart, your soul, your humanity, because it’s how we create our humanity. I really think art breathes, it can tell us what it means to be Native. Art shows us is how to go on, and embrace the other world.
Art can communicate within global communities everywhere, to share our life experiences, our thoughts – so we can all develop our consciousness as human beings. Art feeds the soul, it feeds the heart and consciousness of a community, representing the humanity of a common thread, allowing every community to develop to its fullest potentiality.