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Mission Indians: A new play by Greg Sarris

By Sharon Maidenberg

When you enter the performance space at Intersection for the Arts, you are immediately welcomed by the spiritual experience you're about to experience with Campo Santo's Mission Indians. Written by Greg Sarris and directed by Camp Santo's Nancy Benjamin and Margo Hall, Mission Indians was originally written about Southern California Indians, but Sarris and Campo Santo have been hard at work for the past two years specifically adapting the play to deal with Coastal and Santa Rosa Indians, the Campo Santo cast, and the performance space at Intersection. Rest assured, if you're not from the area all you need is a working knowledge of identity, ethnicity, sexuality, and family issues in order to relate. The heartfelt if at times over-dramatized performances by the Camp Santo crew, along with the intimate quarters and interspersed Indian chanting create the overall mood of what you'd imagine a traditional Native American town to feel like. The play is an accomplishment for Intersection's resident theater company Campo Santo, as it is for Greg Sarris and his family, who were able to be there on opening night.

Perhaps one of the most engaging elements of the show is the set, designed by interdisciplinary artist Victor Cartagena. Plastered on the walls' entire surface are flattened cardboard boxes; suspended from the ceiling are blue and green glass bottles. The sparse bed and table and chair set seem insignificant in comparison to the rather ambient backdrop. The show opens with Jason, a young boy played by Gabriela Barragan reading aloud information about Native Indians from a schoolbook. His father Bob (Michael Torres) forcefully objects, and constantly reminds his son that their ancestry is Mexican, not Indian. Tensions flare and we are let into the world of ethnic stereotypes, intergenerational gaps, and family disputes. When Joey (Sean San Jose, through 2/24) comes around claiming that he is Bob's long lost brother, we are let into a world of sibling rivalry, clashing cultures, and misrepresented communities. While Joey seeks the love, history, and comfort of family, Bob is busily scheming to get the family's land for his own economic profit. The brothers' grandfather seems to be the ever-present voice of the past, of spirituality, of traditional Indian culture, and of the family's past. He warns of a looming danger, symbolically referred to as "drowning" throughout the play, that is eminent if one's family and heritage is denied.

As the story unfolds, we are told of Joey's past -- abandoned by his family, left to work the streets for survival. Perhaps the most compelling performances is by Louis Parnell, the wealthy gay man with whom Joey is staying with while he explores his roots. The plot reaches climax when we discover that Ward, who spends the better part of the show trying to get Joey into bed, is in fact plotting with Joey's brother Bob to take over the family's land and build a casino. Again, the struggle between selfish economic growth and familial and cultural ties become central. Issues of cultural continuity, ethnic stereotyping, and the constant search for truth of self are at the heart of Sarris' work.

Inspired by the Indian tradition of storytelling and oral history, Mission Indians tells the story of a conflicted family tormented by greed, shame, family secrets, and denial of one's heritage. Very much in Campo Santo's tradition of Community Theater, the play addresses some very real issues that permeate through most cultures today. Sarris says about his work that it "chronicles survival and lights up the dark places" so that people of all cultural backgrounds can know about the past and have a strong foundation for the future. Mission Indians tells a story. It allows people of many generations, cultures, and sexual orientations to relate to the fundamental issues that are at the core of present day existence.

Mission Indians plays at Intersection for the Arts through March 11. Performances are Thursdays-Sundays at 8 PM. Tickets are $9-$15, sliding scale. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can-days. Intersection is located at 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th), San Francisco. For reservations and information call Campo Santo's box office at 415.267.2956