How Native American Rock Opera Something Inside is Broken Explores the Dark Side of American History

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Mention the words “rock opera,” and most people think of either Tommy, the tale of a pinball wizard with a disturbing childhood, or Jesus Christ Superstar, about the perils of mixing faith with fame.

Now though, there’s a new rock opera to add to that roster. It's called Something Inside is Broken, and the show explores themes of social justice in pre-gold rush California, where Western expansion had dire consequences for Native people.

It comes to the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix this month.

Jack Kohler, who wrote the script and much of the music for Something Inside is Broken, describes it as a Native American rock opera. More than half of its 26 songs feature the Nisenan language once prevalent among indigenous people in Central California.

Kohler, a member of the Hoopa Valley tribe in Northwestern California, co-created the work with Alan Wallace, a native Nisenan storyteller.

“The show is geared towards non-Natives,” Kohler says. “It teaches so much history, but we don’t hit people over the head with it.”

Instead, its songs range from intense to comical. “We’re not shaking our finger at white people,” he says.

Through satire and poking fun at stereotypes, Kohler hopes to highlight parts of American history that get lost in many Western expansion narratives, which glorify the adventures of Kit Carson and others, without addressing ways their actions ravaged Native lives.

The title, Something Inside is Broken, references not only the immorality of historical figures who committed heinous acts against Natives, but also the historical trauma that’s been carried through generations of Native people in America.

Originally, Kohler didn’t set out to write a rock opera.

Three years ago, while teaching in an after-school program, Kohler encouraged his students to start a rock band, which ended up playing the local festival circuit. Wallace heard them play, and started sharing details about Native history and language.

Then Kohler’s students suggested he write a musical sharing the Native stories they weren’t reading in school textbooks. He spent a year writing what became the rock opera, which premiered earlier this year in California. Its current tour includes stops in Phoenix, Reno, and several California cities.

He’s hoping the rock opera raises awareness about a dark side of American history and issues that persist in contemporary American culture – including greed, objectification of women, marginalization of minorities, destruction of the planet, and inhumane treatment of vulnerable populations.

“It’s like the ancestors were pushing us to do it,” Kohler says.

On Native Ground presents Something Inside is Broken October 10 and 11 at Herberger Theater Center. Tickets start at $20, and are available through www.herbergertheater.org or 602-258-9481. 

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