Kachina Syndrome

In an early draft of Phoenix playwright Carol DuVal Whiteman's Katsina, the story ends with a stage full of extras dressed as elaborate approximations of Hopi kachinas. But Whiteman spiked the scene when her Hopi friends objected to public representations of their deified ancestral spirits.

Would that some benevolent organization had intervened on behalf of Whiteman's elegant play before Actors Theatre of Phoenix opened its drowsy interpretation at Herberger Theater Center.

This world premiere is notable for several reasons--not the least of which is that Katsina is one of the few pieces of theater about Native American culture to make it to the American stage in several years.

The play received the prestigious L. Arnold Weissberger Award from New Dramatists Play Service and it was published in Princeton University's Quarterly Review of Literature as the penultimate poetic play of 1994. Early versions of Katsina were runners-up in several other reputable playwriting competitions, as well.

But before the accolades began to pile up, no company wanted to produce this morality tale about a Hopi Indian living in Oraibi, a pueblo village in northern Arizona. Katsina was dismissed by several theater companies, presumably because its story--inspired by the book Sun Chief: The Autobiography of a Hopi Indian--wasn't commercial enough.

Whiteman, one of the original founders of Arizona Theatre Company, continued to study the Hopi language and culture and to rewrite and workshop her play.

Written in iambic pentameter, this two-act drama is constructed as an elaborate kachina dance, using pantomime and other nontraditional devices to tell the story of Professor Rinehart, a young, white anthropologist from the University of Arizona, and his Hopi subject, Dan Tuvena. As Tuvena (Gregory Zaragoza) recalls his life, he and Rinehart (John King) become friends. When the publish-or-perish professor demands that Tuvena reveal the details of secret Hopi ceremonies, the pair square off over issues of identity and social and cultural responsibilities.

The main action takes place in 1974, though Whiteman honors the nonlinear storytelling traditions of the Hopi by leaping back and forth in time, creating a spiraling story line that begins in the middle. This sort of attention to detail is Katsina's real achievement. Whiteman knows that Western audiences want a linear story and simple dialogue, yet her writing represents her subject by treating time as a continuous loop with metered dialogue that reflects the rhythms of the Hopi language. Her short, dramatic scenes are pure Western cinema, but are full of the mystique of Hopi ceremony and legend. Even more impressive is that Whiteman has created a written story from a mostly oral language and culture, and managed to capture the essence of Hopi rituals without revealing the ceremonies themselves.

The play's most moving scenes are those depicting the horrifying treatment of the Hopi by the white man. Literally dragged to white schools by missionaries, the Hopi children are given Christian names and forced to forget their heritage and customs. Whiteman's perfunctory presentation of this abuse skips the tedious sermonizing that marks so many of the books and films about the subject.

Unfortunately, neither director nor cast is up for this sophisticated material, and the sum of these clever parts is lost in a less-than-entertaining muddle of murky scene changes and inferior performances.

Director Andrew J. Traister has turned Whiteman's clever writing into a funereal history lesson, abandoning the playwright's kachina dance construct in favor of a more traditional--and much less interesting--staging.

Traister reportedly didn't direct actor Adan Sanchez in his role as Tuvena's invisible spirit guide, allowing Sanchez to create the character on his own. If this is true, it was the director's wisest move: As an ersatz Greek chorus, Sanchez provides pleasant comic relief, dogging the other actors and drawing attention away from their mostly colorless performances. In the lead, Gregory Zaragoza is suitably solemn as a prideful Hopi, though Traister drags him too often to center stage to spout about pride and community.

Zaragoza's best scenes are those in which he abandons the ennui of the adult Tuvena and plays him as a school-age boy; despite his imposing height and salt-and-pepper wig, the actor projects youthful innocence as a teen courting two girls at once.

The supporting players don't fare as well. Phoenix may have a large Native American population, but there are apparently few native actors here. Traister cast five of the roles with New York actors, and several others from auditions in Los Angeles. Despite this talent search, most of the smaller roles are performed with a listless lack of style. Local thespian Kim Bennett makes an imposing preacher, but he has only a handful of scenes and is mostly wasted here.

These uninteresting performances and Traister's banal staging ultimately sink Whiteman's carefully constructed tribute to the Hopi. Given the paucity of plays about the Native American people and their culture, that's unfortunate. It's even more discouraging to see a worthwhile play by a local writer make it onto an Equity stage without benefit of the fine production it deserves.

Actors Theatre of Phoenix's production of Katsina continues through Sunday, March 23, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela