When Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator of “Reservation Dogs,” started writing his first play with the other members of The 1491s, the sketch comedy troupe of which he was member, he and the group began working on the project in the same way they would have brainstormed one of their comic YouTube shorts: “The first day of working, we sat around and drew dicks on a dry-erase board for half the day,” he said.
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Harjo recalled the process in a conversation with Bobby Wilson, another one of the five members of The 1491s, during the latest episode of “Stagecraft,” Variety’s theater podcast. The play, “Between Two Knees,” was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of a series of plays focused on U.S. history. It premiered at OSF in 2019—just as the lauded TV series “Reservation Dogs” initially got sold to FX. (All five members of the 1491s would go on to work in the writers room.)
Tracing the years between the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 through to the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, “Between Two Knees” follows multiple generations of one Native American family in a wildly comedic series of scenes. It gets its New York premiere next month at the Perelman Arts Center in downtown Manhattan.
“The way that we came up with each of those scenes was very similar to the process that we had been using for years for our sketches,” Wilson said. “Doing it on the fly, seeing what’s funny to us, what sticks. Then we really got to build out the drama shit. That was what was different about us working together in that capacity—it was really building out and humanizing people in these dramatic ways.”
“I think that everybody besides me was pretty afraid of drama,” added Harjo, an independent filmmaker who’s made dramatic films and documentaries.
Both Harjo and Wilson noted that the demographics of theater audiences influenced how they told the story of “Between Two Knees.”
“‘Reservation Dogs’ was very much for Native people, and if other people come along, cool,” Harjo said. “The play was more like: We’re going to challenge non-Native audiences, because that’s who’s going to see this. We have to talk to them.”
“Theater spaces are definitely not for Native folks,” Wilson noted. “It’s quite the opposite, really.”
The play doesn’t shy away from some of the darkest moments in the history of the U.S. and its treatment of Native American people. “I don’t have a philosophy of comedy, but there’s something about telling the truth that cuts through everything,” Harjo said.
While the “Reservation Dogs” co-creator has a number of screen projects in the works, he wouldn’t mind writing another play. “I would probably make a great American drama, with some humor,” he said. “A family thing. I’m going for the Pulitzer here!”
To hear the entire conversation, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and the Broadway Podcast Network. New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.
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