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"Walking on Turtle Island" Guides Audience Through Native American Culture and History

Robert Owens-Greygrass in "Walking on Turtle Island." Photo - Craig Schwartz
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The Native Voices at the Autry program, the only Equity theatre company in the country dedicated exclusively to producing new works by Native American playwrights, is a unique and welcome resource for the L.A. community. The shows there often focus on the richness of traditional Native American culture and on the difficulties of keeping that culture alive in the modern-day U.S., or “Turtle Island.” Actor and playwright Robert Owens-Greygrass is currently performing two one-man-shows in repertory for Native Voices, one of which is the intriguing and entertaining Walking on Turtle Island.The show is narrated by Iyeska, a trickster spirit guide, who surprises with his way of combining talk of traditional Native American culture with more up-to-date terminology, describing himself as a VIP (Virtual Interactive Persona) and delivering sly amusement. He introduces several stories, the best of which involves the young boy Running Bull Elk, who loves his dog. After an accident occurs, the boy goes to his grandfather for advice on a series of possibly significant dreams, which helps the boy not only to deal with his feelings but also to learn more about his Lakota culture. An 80-year-old Ojibwe woman, Oona, recounts her memories of having her family moved to a reservation when she was young, and warrior Tyee John despairs of losing his fighting spirit as his people are forcibly relocated and lied to. Finally, Jesse White Toes, a mixed-blood Native American, tries to reconnect with roots while stuck in jail.

As a performer, Owens-Greygrass is low-key and effective, not trying to show off with elaborately different accents or personas, and he succeeds quite well as a storyteller. That being said, his work as Oona at various ages of her life is seamless and quietly impressive. Owens-Greygrass’ writing strikes a nice balance between dramatizing events and being informative concerning the various cultures touched upon. Director Kevin Sifuentes stages the show fluidly, keeping it from the one-person-show trap of just standing in one place and talking for ninety minutes, and R. Craig Wolf’s lighting design helps to efficiently create new settings as the stories progress.

Walking on Turtle Island runs through March 18 at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center. Tickets are available online.