Student play asks: What does it mean to be a Native artist today?

After student Drew Woodson took a playwriting course with Philip Gotanda, a professor in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at Berkeley, he realized he had a story to tell. Two years later, that story would become his first play, Your Friend, Jay Silverheels. “The original idea for this play came out of this frustration I was having as an actor of not being able to find monologues that really fit and felt true to who I am as a Native person,” says Woodson. “I knew I had to write this story, to get it down on paper — not only for myself as an actor, but for other Native actors who maybe felt the same way as me.”

On Dec. 5, Woodson is staging a reading of Your Friend, Jay Silverheels in Durham Studio Theater in Dwinelle Hall on campus.

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Drew Woodson smiles as he talks to Salwa Meghjee

Drew Woodson is a fifth-year student majoring in theater, dance and performance studies at Berkeley. He’s presenting a reading of his first play, Your Friend, Jay Silverheels, at the end of this semester. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Read a transcript of Fiat Vox episode #61: “Student play asks: What does it mean to be a Native artist today?”:

Intro: This is Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice.

Narration: Drew Woodson knew he wanted to be an actor when he was 7, watching a mad scientist scene in the 1931 film Frankenstein.

[Sound: Excerpt from 1931 film Frankenstein: “It’s moving! It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!”] (fade out)

Drew Woodson: I remember going to my uncle, who is an actual scientist, and being like, “I want to do this. I want to be a scientist.” And he said, “Well, that doesn’t actually exist. There’s no actual mad scientist. That’s not a job.” And so, I was like, “Alright, well, then I’ll be an actor.” (laughs) So, that’s kind of where that whole idea was born.”

Drew Woodson acting on stage

Woodson as Chrysaor in the play Fable, presented by the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies in fall 2019. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Dillon)

Narration: When he got to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate student in 2015, Drew decided to major in theater, dance and performance studies, and threw himself into studying acting. He loved performing for an audience — it was when he felt the most free, the most confident.

In his third year, though, he took a playwriting course with professor Philip Gotanda and realized he had his own story to tell. Two years later, that story would become his first play, called Your Friend, Jay Silverheels.

Drew Woodson: The original idea for this play came out of this frustration that I was having as an actor of not being able to find monologues that really fit and felt true to who I am as a Native person. I wasn’t seeing something that really spoke to who I was.

So, I kind of realized, at a certain point, that the reason was that it hadn’t been written yet. From that, I knew I had this need to write this story, to get it down on paper — not only for myself as an actor, but for other Native actors who maybe felt the same way as me.

[Music: “Hedgeliner” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Narration: Your Friend, Jay Silverheels is a play within a play. Its lead character is Kevin, an actor in his mid-20s from Nevada from the Western Shoshone tribe who is living in the Bay Area — all characteristics shared by Drew.

Drew Woodson: The reason I made him Western Shoshone was because I felt that I couldn’t realistically write about another tribe because I don’t have that experience.

Narration: Kevin is one of several Native American characters in Drew’s play who are struggling with their identities as young Native people living in a place where they’ve learned to internalize a daily undercurrent of racism.

They’re cast in a play with a white director in which they feel stereotyped and one-dimensional. But they need the work, so they take the job. Throughout the play, Kevin grapples with what it means to be Native American today.

Drew Woodson: People have constantly been telling him his whole life that he’s not Native enough — that he needs to show it more somehow. And he’s not really sure how to make himself more Native. How do you make yourself more Native? He himself doesn’t inherently have the feeling of being Native. He has to search for it. And so, he searches for it in all the wrong places and he sees it in all the wrong people.

Narration: It’s a feeling that Drew says he can relate to, and that he’s learned other people have had when talking to them about their experiences.

[Music fades out]

Students Salwa Meghjee and Drew Woodson sit side-by-side on a bench

Salwa Meghjee, a fourth-year student majoring in English, is co-directing Your Friend, Jay Silverheels with Woodson. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

When Drew was 7, he and his family — he’s the youngest of five brothers — moved from Nevada to Kelseyville, a tiny town in Northern California at the base of a volcano next to Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the state.

Growing up, he says, he and his family talked about their tribe, their history and where they came from. He kind of figured everyone did, so it was never a big thing or something that stood out to him. It was just part of his life and who he was.

Drew Woodson: Growing up, I never had an idea, necessarily, of like, “Oh, this is my culture” because it was just a part of me. And that’s how I’ve kind of continued with it. I always know that it’s a part of me, even if I’m not practicing the culture, if I’m not speaking the language every day. I still know that it’s inherently a part of my being.

Narration: His grandma spoke the old Shoshone language — there’s a new version that people speak today. In his play, Drew incorporates several familial old Shoshone words into the dialogue.

Drew Woodson: The main character calls his grandmother, who is a character in the play, he calls her “gag’u,” which is the word for grandmother. And she calls him “pakka,” which is a word for “big eyes” (more specifically, “big glasses”) — that’s a little nickname that she made fun of him with. Then, there are other words like “abasha,” which is “love.”

Narration: The play is cast with seven Berkeley students — six of whom are played by students of color. The only character played by a white student is the white director. Drew says this was important to him because he felt the actors could more deeply relate to the story’s themes of race, identity and belonging.

Students Salwa Meghjee and Drew Woodson sit at a table on stage, going over a script

Next semester, Woodson and Meghjee will teach a DeCal course about Your Friend, Jay Silverheels, and will hold auditions for a full production of the play to be performed at the end of April. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Drew Woodson: We talked for a such a long time about our own experience, and I’m really comfortable and confident that they’ll be able to do justice to the work and to really bring their own sense of themselves. But also, a sense of respect to the work.

Narration: Drew is co-directing the play with Salwa Meghjee, a fourth-year student majoring in English and minoring in theater and creative writing. Together, they’ve begun leading rehearsals. It’s the first time that Drew has seen his work performed.

Drew Woodson: This play itself is very personal. It’s a part of myself. And so, giving that to somebody else to interpret and bring their own experiences to is a very scary thing. But it’s also very exciting because it feels extremely collaborative in that way.

[Music: “Highride” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Narration: A reading of Your Friend, Jay Silverheels will be showcased for the community on Dec. 5 at 4 p.m. at Durham Studio Theater in Dwinelle Hall on campus. The play runs about two hours. Anyone is welcome to attend.

Next semester, Drew and Salwa will teach a student-run DeCal class on the play. They’ll also hold auditions for a full production of the play that will be performed in late April, right before they both graduate.

To make it all come together, they’ll be collaborating with Colors of Theatre, a student group on campus dedicated to community and opportunity for people of color. And they’ll also be working with the Indigenous and Native Coalition Recruitment and Retention Center, a student organization on campus that supports and uplifts Native and Indigenous peoples.

To learn more about Your Friend, Jay Silverheels, visit Colors of Theatre on Facebook.

For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.

Outtro: You can subscribe to this podcast, Fiat Vox, spelled F-I-A-T V-O-X, on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. If you liked this episode, consider sharing it with a friend. And check out our other podcast, Berkeley Talks, that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.