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Language stands at the center of Where We Belong, a compelling but uneven solo show written and performed by Madeline Sayet. The play comes to Philadelphia Theatre Company as part of a multi-city US tour, co-produced by Washington, DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
In Sayet’s world, words both connect and divide. The systems that underpin them act as tools of liberation and oppression. A citizen of the sovereign Mohegan Tribe and a Shakespearean expert, Sayet is keenly aware of and interested in cultural intersections, and the sometimes-uncomfortable chasm between her personal history and her chosen profession form the basis of this 80-minute monologue.
Sayet’s narrative begins in earnest with her decision, in 2015, to move to London in pursuit of a PhD. Her choice to study Shakespeare in his homeland opens up uncomfortable questions for the author and her family, who are deeply invested in the preservation of Mohegan language and culture. As the child of an Indigenous mother and a white father, Sayet has spent a portion of her life pushing back on the accusation that she’s seeking to assimilate—for some, an assumption bolstered by her scholarly pursuits.
Yet Sayet’s journey to Shakespeare, and self-awareness, begins long before she boards the plane to Heathrow. We learn that her mother gave her a traditional name in honor of Jeets Bodernasha, the last fluent Mohegan speaker. Bodernasha maintained a connection to the language long after it died out in other mouths, speaking it instead to the spirits of her ancestors. Through her work here, Sayet also becomes a cultural keeper of memory, infusing her script with meaningful Mohegan words and phrases.
As a teenager living in Connecticut—the unceded land of the Mohegan people—Sayet finds herself drawn to the Bard, which allows her to escape the cultural expectations placed by her family, her classmates, and herself. “I take comfort in words I can understand,” she explains, referencing Juliet’s lovely soliloquies. As she finds herself in Shakespeare’s texts, she also strives to marry the two worlds together—to create an ecosystem where all her identities harmonize.
An Indigenous artist’s reality
Where We Belong chronicles that journey, along with several others, both literal and figurative. Sayet educates her audience on the Atlantic crossings of Mahomet Weyonomon, a Mohegan chieftain who died in England waiting for an audience with King George II, and Samson Occom, the teacher and cleric whose dreams for a Native American school were supplanted by the establishment of Dartmouth College. She also expresses the realities of being an Indigenous artist working in a predominantly white field, where she is expected to bring “Native flair” to productions of Shakespeare rather than to sharply interrogate how Native characters are portrayed in his works.
Sayet doesn’t shield her audience from unnerving moments. An extended sequence set at the British Museum, where she is summoned to give her perspective on the Native holdings, could raise anyone’s blood pressure, even as Sayet injects humor into a tense encounter with a pompous curator. She portrays the experience of being seen as the sole representative of an entire people, expected to filter a diverse culture into easily digested soundbites for a non-Native audience.
Despite the many worthy strands that Sayet explores, Where We Belong never fully coalesces. Neither personal history nor the current state of Indigenous Shakespeare scholarship are given enough room to breathe. Although the work is deeply connected to her own backstory, Sayet seems to disappear from the narrative for long stretches of time, acting more like a reporter or a historian. Not an actor by training, she lacks the natural presence to hold an audience rapt through the drier stretches.
Mei Ann Teo’s production is visually striking, with especially evocative sets and lighting by Hao Bai. Jeets Bodernasha, Sayet’s namesake, means “Flying Bird” in English, and Sayet’s linguistic imagery conjures aerial symbolism. Teo and Bai create a haunting liminal space that seems to float between realms, complementing this extended metaphor. Too often, though, Where We Belong remains earthbound.
Know before you go: Where We Belong uses strobe lighting effects.
What, When, Where
Where We Belong. By Madeline Sayet, directed by Mei Ann Teo. $10-$55. Through May 8, 2022, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
Proof of full Covid-19 vaccination is required to attend and masks must be worn at all times inside the theater. Distanced seating is available in the mezzanine and can be purchased in advance.
The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is a fully accessible venue with automatic entryways, box office windows at wheelchair level, and elevator access between floors. Accessible seating is available on all levels of the theater. There will be an audio-described performance on Saturday, April 30, at 2pm, and an open-caption performance on Saturday, May 7, at 2pm.
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