“We’re gonna make this fun,” says Justin Gauthier as Larry, the host of “Between Two Knees,” a “comedy play” that attempts to educate attendees about Native American history through humor. “We’re gonna talk about war and genocide and PTSD and molestation. So it’s OK to laugh!”
This unconventionally dark and wacky show, created by the sketch comedy troupe The 1491s — whose members are best known for their contributions to the Hulu TV series, “Reservation Dogs” — doesn’t pull any punches. Or spare anyone’s feelings.
“So, white people … I know you’re out there, I can smell you,” says Larry, addressing the audience, in the current production of “Between Two Knees” at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. “It smells like sandalwood, inherited wealth and privilege in this room.”
Larry also says: “Indians have been through some pretty dark shit. I mean dark shit! Yeah, all caused by you people.”
The central story of the show has to do with a long-suffering Native American couple — Isaiah (played by Derek Garza when he’s younger and Wotko Long when he’s older) and Irma (Shyla Lefner when she’s younger, Jennifer Bobiwash when she’s older) — depicted through the decades of their lives. But there are a lot of detours along the way, with countless different characters portrayed by the cast of 13, musical numbers in various genres (including an incomprehensible hip-hop song), a stream of throwaway jokes (some delivered in Vaudeville style) and even a mini game-show, “Wheel of Indian Massacre.”
As the title implies, the action takes place between the 1890 massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, and the 1973 protest there. And yes, of course, there is no question that people, in general, don’t know enough about what Native Americans endured during those years and are enduring now, and have been routinely exposed to demeaning stereotypes.
The aim of “Between Two Knees” it to hammer all that home in a way that’s edgy and brutally honest yet also irreverent. So irreverent that a pre-show message makes fun of many theaters’ well-intentioned policy, in recent years, of acknowledging the Native American tribe whose land the theater stands on, before each show.
“We tell you a bunch of Indians used to live here, and blabbitty blabbitty blah, but then you space out and learn absolutely nothing about the original people of this land,” audience members are told. (To their credit, the 1491s did set up a display in the lobby about this subject, instead of just mentioning it briefly before the show).
Overall, though, everything about this production seemed, to me, too frantic and scattered to have much of an impact.
The ending is meant to be uplifting, with white people being swallowed up by the Earth. “With white people completely gone, so went capitalism, and systemic oppression; naturally, everyone’s lives improved,” Larry tell us.
But by the time the cast got to their big closing number — in which everyone cheerfully sang an anthem with lines such as “So long, white people, some of you were cool, most of you were not” — I had had more than enough.
Remaining presentations of “Between Two Knees” at The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton are scheduled for Feb. 10-11 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 11-12 at 2 p.m. Visit mccarter.org.
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