As a member of the South Dakota-based Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, lifelong Clevelander, and chairperson of the Lake Erie Native American Council (LENAC), Marlys Rambeau is accustomed to area organizations approaching her when they need a Native American to play a role in a theatrical production.
But she says people usually just want someone who can play a stereotypical part. They’re not always interested in depicting the true Native American cultural story.
The Boy Who Stole the Sun - Talespinner Children's Theatre
That’s all changing, thanks to Talespinner Children’s Theatre.
In 2016, Talespinner's executive artistic director Ali Garrigan came to Rambeau to propose a production that tells authentic Native American stories. “I met with her and she gave me the spiel,” Rambeau recalls. “I was nonchalant about it, but we discussed broadening our horizons to get more involved with the community at large—not just within our own community.”
The two women formed what they now call a “lifelong friendship” and collaborated on the project. In 2018, Talespinner and LENAC brought “The Boy Who Stole the Sun (and other Native American Stories)” to audiences across Cuyahoga County.
Never underestimate the power of creative expression in bringing a community together—the production was a wild success, and audiences across the region were both entertained and educated.
A year of impact
The collaboration between Talespinner and LENAC is exactly what Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) focused on in 2018—illustrating the power of unifying communities through the arts and teaching residents to recognize both their differences and similarities.
Last Wednesday, April 24, CAC released its 2018 Annual Report to the Community, highlighting how the organization has done just that by prioritizing equity and inclusion across programming and celebrating what makes the people of Cuyahoga County unique.
This heightened emphasis on equity and inclusion follows the findings of CAC’s 2016 study Cuyahoga Voices and Vision, which showed some residents felt that they were not welcome or included in many arts and culture events.
“We’re recognizing our role and the importance we can play in making the arts more equitable, spotlighting unheard voices, and promoting inclusion,” says Jill Paulsen, CAC’s interim CEO and executive director. “We’ve evolved as an organization and learned from the groups we fund.”
The efforts have paid off. Since its founding in 2007, CAC has invested more than $182 million in 2,169 grants to 404 nonprofit organizations—all thanks to public funding through a cigarette tax. Last year, the organization funded 258 organizations that brought almost seven million residents and visitors of all ages together through CAC-sponsored performances, exhibits, and history and natural science experiences. (52 percent of those admissions were free of charge.)
“We all go to festivals, we go to concerts, we go to museums,” says Paulsen. “What we’ve heard is that people want to be together. Arts and culture bring people together to exchange ideas.” In fact, Paulsen reports 140,000 events were viewed on CAC’s events calendar last year, providing different ways to come together through arts and culture activities.
A matter of respect
In the annual report, CAC points to the partnership between Talespinner and LENAC as a prime example of its mission. When Talespinner decided to mount “The Boy Who Store the Sun,” the staff wanted to make sure the region’s Native American voices were represented accurately. Garrigan, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest hearing the stories of tribes in her region, knew that importance.
“I have always felt you need to be respectful of the communities you’re representing,” she explains. “Whenever we represent a community, we do not appropriate. We do our serious due diligence. These are stories to be heard, stories to widen the horizons of kids in the Cleveland community, stories that we would not hear otherwise.”
The production—funded in part by Talespinner’s 2018 CAC project support grant of $17,425—told the tales of the Inuit tribe of the Northwest, the Ojibwe tribe of the East, and the Pueblo of the Southwest. (In addition, LENAC received a $5,000 project support grant in 2018 for other projects.)
The Boy Who Stole the Sun - Talespinner Children's Theatre
The intention was to depict Native Americans as a part of present-day American society, not simply as a piece of American history. “Native Americans are here now—they are not history,” says Garrigan. “They are people like everyone else and they live their lives.”
Talespinner put on 18 theater performances and numerous outreach programs. At one performance, LENAC arranged for dancers to perform difference types of traditional dances before the performance.
“It was so cool and so nice that someone respected us enough to include us in the process,” says LENAC’s Rambeau. “I hope people get a better understanding of us, not the stereotypical thoughts of who we are. We’re just like anyone else and our community is so small—we’re the minority of minorities—and I’m finally getting more and more people to connect with each other again.”
Additionally, LENAC will host its annual Mini Wacipi pow wow, funded by CAC and Neighborhood Connections, on Saturday, May 18, at Urban Community School (4909 Lorain Ave.) from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The free event will feature drumming, dancing, and craft and food vendors.
A move toward equity
In response to the Voices and Vision report, CAC also placed a large emphasis on racial equity last year—both in the programs it supports and in training.
Sixty-eight organizations and 185 individuals participated in CAC-sponsored training by the Racial Equity Institute (REI), hosted by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress. The programming served as an introduction to historical, institutional, and systemic racism, revealing the impact of persistent racial inequity.
Cleveland Heights’ Dobama Theater was one of the 68 organizations that sent staff to the REI training. After participating in the training, theater officials conducted usher training to address micro-aggressions and involuntary racism, particularly as they pertain to the presumed etiquette of theatre.
Additionally, during a recent Dobama performance of “Sunset Baby,” the theater included a program insert that described "call and response" theater in the black community, encouraging all audience members to engage with the work in whatever way they saw fit.
“We are reminded, through groups like REI, that examining our own ‘house’ is as important as looking outwards for social justice,” Dobama representatives shared when giving post-feedback.
The Boy Who Stole the Sun - Talespinner Children's TheatreDobama’s REI work in March earned the theater one of three 2019 Actors’ Equity Association’s Kathryn V. Lamkey (“Kathy”) Awards, which recognizes theatre companies, individuals, producers, and organizations that provide ongoing opportunities for underrepresented members in the organization’s central region.
“While we are beyond grateful for this recognition, I think we would agree that we will all truly celebrate when inclusivity in programming, casting, and hiring is the norm,” Dobama artistic director Nathan Motta said in his acceptance speech. “It should be as instinctual as holding the door open for the person behind you or serving your neighbor before you serve yourself at the dinner table.”
Additionally, last week, the CAC board of trustees approved contracts with Race Forward and Equius Group to provide training and capacity-building work to support organizations that are interested in making their work more racially equitable.
Last week, the CAC board of trustees also approved its 2020 general operating support and project support grants programs. Applications open this week.
The board approved a renewal grant to the Center for Performance and Civic Practice to provide a second year of its Learning Lab program. The program will begin in the third quarter of 2019 and will once again offer professional development and funding for 12 artists and 12 nonprofit partners to co-create civic projects in 2019-2020.
Paulsen says she looks forward to expanding CAC’s role in promoting equity through the arts in Cuyahoga County in 2019 and 2020. “The work never ends,” she says. “But I am pleased with the goals we’ve set and the feedback we’ve gotten in our equity work and expanding options for artists.”