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Theater Review

Ancestors and myth lift 'Wings of Night'

March 21, 2009|F. Kathleen Foley

The latest offering in the Autry's Native Voices series, Joy Harjo's "Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light," begins with a creation myth. Harjo tells us how trickster Rabbit creates a clay man, more out of whimsy than for any real purpose. But Rabbit's prank backfires. The clay man's insatiable hunger for game, for women, for all the riches of the Earth, soon throws the universe out of balance. It is only belatedly that Rabbit realizes his fatal mistake: He has fashioned the clay man with no ears.

The symbolism of that heedless, hungry clay man soon becomes apparent in Harjo's delicately structured narrative. Males, of a particularly capricious and abusive ilk, routinely dominate the unfortunate women in their orbit. Harjo's precociously sensitive heroine is the mixed-blood child of a Cherokee waitress and an alcoholic Creek father. As Harjo explains, tribal time is a porous commodity that can race or stand still, according to circumstance. With the fresh bitterness of yesterday, the narrator's father still blames his wife's ancestral people for their complicity with Andrew Jackson during the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend -- bad blood that ultimately poisons the marriage.

Even more disastrous is the mother's second marriage to a viciously controlling sadist. The "Keeper," as he is chillingly referred to, drives the narrator away at an early age and eventually leads her into her own unfortunate and stifling union.

Harjo is a poet first, an actress second. Don't expect the proficient presentation that comes from years of classical stage training. There's a certain rawness to Harjo's delivery, a herky-jerky quality to her movement. Given sufficient smoothing by director Randy Reinholz, however, Harjo's performance takes on immediacy and her tale, a pastiche of allegory, myth, music and spiritual musing, has the momentous quality of religious ceremony right up until the final gift-giving ritual.

The action is interspersed, frequently, with music. Ably backed by Grammy-winning music producer Larry Mitchell on guitar, Harjo proves a compelling singer, not to mention a gifted saxophonist. Numbers include a cappella tribal chants and gutsy blues numbers, original tunes written by Mitchell and Harjo. Most moving is a simple traditional tune sung on the Trail of Tears, a song of encouragement and hope that heroically transcends time and circumstance.

Susan Scharpf's odd set is dominated by an amorphously formed flying horse. Bizarrely, an anguished face arises from the animal's back -- almost, it seems, out of its rump. A small kitchen table is the most striking symbol in Harjo's iconography, an island in an embattled domestic microcosm over which stories are swapped, beers are drunk, and under which children hide when the mood turns from convivial to ugly.

The narrative ultimately shifts, less successfully, into a more inchoate tone. Lyricism aside, we long to see the actual causes behind the narrator's own marital dissolution. But her painful journey from a traumatic childhood to serenity and acceptance is well-charted, an inspirational odyssey that makes "Wings" take flight.

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'Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light'

Where: Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 29

Price: $20

Contact: (323) 667-2000, Ext. 354

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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