6/21/2019          THE TRUE STORY OF POCAHONTAS                 Serenbe Playhouse                        

****½  ( A )     (For Kids)


**½  ( C )     (For Adults)



(Grading Explanation.  This review will be in two parts – Since this production is conceived and produced for “Young Audiences,” the first grade should take precedence, and will receive the most attention here.  But, for once, there is a distinct disconnect between the appeal to a young playgoer, and the appeal to an older audience, the details of which are starting points for conversations about this piece. )

We’ve all heard the story since early childhood.  Brave native girl, favored daughter of Chief Powhatan, risks her own head to save the life of Captain John Smith, the English colonist at war with her father.  Her act ushers in an era of peace and cooperation, and thus was born Virginia.  As we worked our way towards adulthood, we learned more details – the peace was only temporary, the “princess” eventually married an English planter (John Rolfe) converting to Christianity, the couple (and their son) travelled to London where Indigenous Americans were still considered “savages,” and the young woman died at age 21 of smallpox, or tuberculosis, or poisoning.  Her exact final resting place in a Gravesend (Kent) churchyard was lost to time when that church was destroyed by fire in 1727.


In 1995, Disney Studios turned her into another animated Princess, in an eco-friendly musical that made no effort to legitimize her story with facts and cultural details, preferring to play the “Noble Savage” trope we white folks have come to know and love.  For better or worse (mostly the latter), that’s the image millennials have of Pocahontas.  To its credit, Disney cast Native American actress Irene Bedard as Pocahontas, and their artists used Ms. Bedard as the “model” for their heroine. 

Now, Serenbe Playhouse has commissioned Waccamaw Siouan Actress and Writer Kara Morrison to tell the story from a Native American perspective.  The result is a charming interactive “play in the woods” that should appeal to the youngest audience members and provide their grown-up companions more than a few entertaining moments and nuggets of “I-Never-Knew-That” acorns of information.


To be sure, an opening “Creation Story” about The Great Hare and all the interacting “Colors of the Wind” … I mean forces and rends … that unify life keeps within the “Noble Savage” eco-friendly trope, but it serves to place Pocahontas within a broader context.  And, thankfully, the script does not shy away from some of the harsher details of Pocahontas’ life, which, for fear of the spoiler police, will remain undescribed here.  And it reminds us that its heroine tended to “bend” with the winds of circumstance – born Matoaka, becoming Pocahontas as a tribute to her playful and mischievous personality, becoming Rebecca when converting to Christianity, choosing to leave her world behind even while (technically) still a prisoner of war.


The story follows a vaguely familiar outline.  Pocahontas and John Rolfe are about to set sail for the Old World.  They are evidently soul mates, and John wants his wife to enjoy “her world” for one final afternoon.  They share stories about their divergent lives and worlds, and make a playful adventure into the forest around Jamestown (taking care to keep clear of the Native village (“If anyone from Jamestown saw us there, they would think that my father was plotting an attempt to bring me home. He would be attacked”).  Meanwhile, a pair of Rolfe’s tobacco laborers follow and learn about Pocahontas’ world along with us.  Also meanwhile, a pair of London gossips anticipate the couple’s arrival by verbalizing all the white preconceptions about Indians we all know and despise.  One of the nicest delights of the show is a montage of the three groups nicely juxtaposing their conflicting narratives.


Eventually, the idyll ends, the pair sets sail, and we are informed about Pocahontas’ fate.


To make sure we are in a “good mental space,” the play is staged in shady a glade with rocks and trees and all the Colors of the Wind …. um, I mean attention to nature’s calmer details.  That we enter the space through the “gates of Jamestown” only serves to remind us of the darker echoes of the idyll.  A talented quintet of Serenbe apprentices play a bird, a deer, the Great Hare, the two gossips, the two tobacco laborers, and John Rolfe.  The twin sister of the playwright, Kaley Morrison, plays Pocahontas with a sparkle, a gleam in her eye, and an earnestness that gives her story true justice.


If the actor playing John Rolfe comes off as a bit stiff and monochromatic, that just may be a result of an exaggerated “Britishness” in close proximity to Ms. Morrison’s natural ease of manner. 


And in a casting coup, Irene Bedard (Disney’s Pocahontas, Terence Malick’s The New World), provides the voice of the Narrator and of Pocahontas’ mother.


The production is filled with Serenbe’s usual bucket full of stage craft (a bubble machine for a white water canoeing sequence, a blue length of fabric waving in the breeze for the river), and there are many opportunities to involve young play-goers – the workers asking for help in avoiding John Rolfe’s overseeing eye, and many opportunities to repeat unfamiliar native names (for example, “Sen-a-com-OH-co” – Tsenacomoco –the land’s name BEFORE it was called Virginia).  At Friday’s performance, the kids were kept in rapt attention for the short less-than-an-hour running time.


So, yes, as befits Serenbe’s summer young-audience programming, this is a pleasant hour in the woods, telling a “hidden” story that we’ve only known from a skewed perspective.  It’s a pleasant wallow in a Native Story, an exposure to cultural motifs that MAY be unfamiliar, and a reminder that, no matter how different we are, we are all interconnected, we are all human, and we are all worthy of respect



(NOTE:  Some Spoilers may follow)


So, with all this praise, why I am I still a bit lukewarm to the script as a whole?


First, too much of the dialogue is very clumsily written, reflecting more a “research dump” than an effort to create believable voices for its characters. For example, two lines delivered by the laborers – “I just thought that she might want to explore the place that shaped the woman she is today because she’s leaving for England soon” and “…maybe different groups of Indians have their own unique set of traditions and complex social structures” do not quite evoke the natural conversation of two friends on a lark in the woods.


Also, too many of the themes are explicitly spoken aloud, again and again.  While I understand this tends to “drive the message” home to younger audiences, it also seems a bit patronizing.  I think kids are bright enough to “get it” without being explicitly told the “moral.”


I also think the structure of John and Pocahontas telling each other their life’s stories was more than a little contrived. After all, they were married in 1614, their son was born in 1615, and it is now 1616.  The “we wooed in haste” explanation seems weak, especially considering how they are written as a happy and devoted couple.  Two years married and they haven’t talked to each other about their first spouses?  (Rolfe’s first wife and child died in shipwreck, and Pocahontas’ husband, Kocoum, was slain when she was captured).


And, I hate to mention this, but the ethnically blind casting of a pair of African American actors as Rolfe’s laborers had an unintended consequence.  Historically, we know that the first slaves, indeed the first Africans in America, were in the Jamestown colony.  My first thought was – are these free laborers or were they slaves?  Of course, they were free men, but in a play about opening our hearts to previously untold stories, it seemed a strange omission to “un-tell” part of the African American story.  Of course, details matter, and the first Africans didn’t get to Jamestown until 1619, two years after Pocahontas’ death, so, technically, ethnically blind casting isn’t as anachronistic as first impressions would indicate.  Still, it IS a conversation that bears having.  I am a strong supporter of ethnically blind casting (and Serenbe is particularly effective at it), but when the focus of the piece is a character’s ethnicity, it becomes a distraction.


One final digression.  Comedy Central has a new documentary series by Jordan Klepper in which he “embeds” himself in a story to try to get every perspective.  In a recent episode, “Invisible Nation,” he tries to examine the “disappearance” of Native American culture.  He makes the conclusion that he is the wrong person to tell that story, and he enlists the aid of many Native speakers to tell their own diverse stories.  In fact, he turns the final moments of the episode over to a Native American videographer to tell any story he wants, and the result is a clever look at the future.


I bring this up because one of Mr. Klepper’s interviews is with an artist who makes the case that there is no SINGLE Native American story, but a diverse thousand stories.  “I can’t even claim to know my own tribe’s story, let alone any of the hundreds of other tribes.”   I couldn’t help thinking of this when I noticed the tribal backgrounds of the Morrisons, of director Tara Moses, of costumer Asa Benally.  All carry different, even mixed tribal heritages, none of them being the Algonquian nations descended from the peoples of Tsenacomoco.  Which begs the question, is this REALLY Pocahontas’ “True” story?  I daresay, it’s probably closer than any others.


And, to its credit, there’s not a SINGLE mention of Captain John Smith.


            -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #SerenbePOCAHONTAS)


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