How is it possible that this is still an issue?
Native Americans and others have protested, for decades, that the tradition of Native American names and images being used for certain sports teams — The Washington Redskins, The Cleveland Indians, The Atlanta Braves and so on — is offensive. There has been more than enough time for those teams to rebrand themselves. But obviously, the names persist, and not just at the professional level. According to the program of “Indian Head,” a new play now premiering at Luna Stage in West Orange, 76 New Jersey schools still have Native American mascots.
“Indian Head” was written by Nikkole Salter and developed as part of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Stage Exchange program, which supports works by Jersey writers that focus on issues of importance to New Jerseyans. It was a good, provocative idea to zero in on this form of cultural appropriation, and hopes were high since Salter’s “Repairing a Nation,” produced at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick in 2015, was both a moving family drama and a thought-provoking look at the lingering effects of discrimination on a community.
But “Indian Head,” unfortunately, is not in the same league as “Repairing a Nation”; while “Repairing a Nation” felt like a story first and attempt to say something about an issue, second, that’s reversed here. The contrived plot and thinly drawn characters seem invented solely to make a point. It’s a good point, but still, it’s just a point, and one that most theater-goers (I’m just guessing here) would find it pretty easy to agree with in the first place.
The year is 2014, and the setting is a high school in Cumberland County (across the Delaware Bay from Delaware, in case you were wondering). It’s late in the football season, and the Chipeekany High School Warriors — coached by one of its former star players, Mr. Smith (Donivan Dain Scott), and led by a gung-ho quarterback, Brian (Ollie Corchado) — has a rare shot at the state championship.
For reasons that are never adequately explained, the school has to make a decision about whether it will change the team’s name at more or less the same time as The Big Game. This decision couldn’t wait for a few weeks?
Rachel (Sydney Battle), a Native American who is a student at the school, takes an ardent interest in getting the name changed, and adopts some questionable, extreme tactics along the way. Rachel’s mother, Patricia (Carla-Rae), agrees with her stance but not her methods, and it’s up to her to negotiate with Mr. Smith when Rachel gets into trouble (it seems contrived that she’s doing this with the football coach and not another school official).
Brian — who casually calls his fellow players “Injuns” without a thought as to how offensive this is — finds himself distracted, when all he really wants to do is concentrate on football. But he’s a reasonable kid, and warms up, eventually, to Rachel’s point of view.
Smith is the one who really digs in his heels. Football is his culture, and his heritage; it’s what has given his life meaning. He even calls his former coach at the school an “elder.” When Rachel commits an act of vandalism to the team’s scoreboard, he sees it as defiling something that is sacred to him.
As an African-American, he has to put up with all kinds of things in his daily life; he doesn’t see why the Native Americans can’t tolerate a name and logo which he doesn’t even see as derogatory. Still, he ultimately comes off as stubborn and petty, while Patricia, the only other adult in the play, is principled and serene.
The issue of sports teams dropping — or refusing to drop — Native American team names is an important one. Yet it feels somewhat unrealistic for it to become such a huge issue in these characters’ lives. On the other hand, I certainly gave more thought to this issue, after seeing this play, than I ever have before, so in that respect, “Indian Head” was successful.
“Indian Head” is at Luna Stage in West Orange through March 5; visit lunastage.org.