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It’s a wrap on Durango PlayFest 2022

The cast of “monsterSLAYer,” by Blossom Johnson, left to right: Shaunibah Morfin (Spider Woman/Dr. Laughter), Colleen Biakeddy (Helen), Noralynn James (Isabella), Kody John (Jaiden), Ernest Hubble (Horned Toad) participant in a talk-back at this year’s Durango PlayFest. (Courtesy)

PlayFest 2022 has concluded a successful fourth season. Total attendance for the seven readings totaled 663, according to official records. The new venue, a large, white tent at Fort Lewis College, offered plenty of free parking. Amplification solved concerns about acoustics. And, despite pandemic concerns, the festival continued to attract professional playwrights, directors and actors, not to mention community players, students and a local audience. By all accounts, PlayFest’s fourth season points toward a fifth.

Four new plays went through the weeklong workshop process: Richard Dresser’s “Our Shrinking, Shrinking World”; Dan Lauria’s “Just Another Day”; Lia Romeo’s “The Agency”; and Blossom Johnson’s “monsterSLAYer.” In addition, four directors arrived to help shape the plays: Joe Cacaci, Amy Glazer, Kim Gleason and Pesha Rudnick. A cadre of professional actors also arrived to merge with community participants including Lake Loague, an Equity Actor who happens to live in Durango.

At every performance, Artistic Director Felicia Meyer welcomed the audience and clarified PlayFest’s mission: “It’s all about the playwrights. We create a space for them to develop their plays.” And after sponsor appreciations and introductions, she invited the audience to stay after the play for the talk-back session.

“monsterSLAYer,” by Johnson, elicited the most compelling and dramatic talk-back. Johnson (Yé’ii Dine’é Táchii’nil and Deeshchii’nii) submitted a script for what has come to be called “the community playwright” role. She has a bachelor’s degree in theater from Arizona State University and a master’s in dramaturgy from Columbia University. Currently, Johnson is a Jerome Fellow in St. Paul, Minnesota, and flew from there to Durango. Her wish to have a Native director and cast was granted.

Blossom Johnson and Kim Gleason. (Courtesy)

Gleason, executive director of Two Worlds Native Theatre in Albuquerque, drove to Durango to workshop the play.

“The goal of Two Worlds is to reclaim Native identities through storytelling, to provide our community with thought-provoking, innovative works of performance art,” Gleason said in a separate interview.

By all accounts, “monsterSLAYer” met those requirements. It tells the story of a family awaiting the birth of twins while also mourning a missing daughter. As the play unfolds, Mother Helen (Colleen Blakeddy) and siblings Isabella (Noralynn James) and Jaiden (Kody John) struggle with their grief. They find a creative path forward with the help of two sacred beings, Spider Woman (Shaunibah Morfin) and Horned Toad (Ernest Hubble).

In the talk-back session, Meyer asked the playwright how workshopping changed the play: “Earlier drafts were more about processing grief,” Meyer said. “There’s more of a struggle in this draft.”

Johnson commented about how the play evolved to focus more on family disconnections and the ways in which families heal after a tragedy.

Audience members disclosed how the play brought back personal family grief.

“Did the play bring healing to you?” asked Stephanie Dial, retired Mercy Hospital chaplain. The question stimulated a long discussion and rich responses from every cast member:

Hubble (Horned Toad) immediately told his own story and concluded with gratitude for the Native cast and crew who came together in a meaningful, shared experience.

Johnson exuberantly expanded on the experience: “We discovered that we are all related. We learned that when we introduced ourselves.”

Biakeddy (Helen) spoke passionately about the matrilineal tradition of responsibility in Native culture and how the play underscores that. Morfin (Spider Woman/Dr. Laughter/narrator) echoed earlier comments and emphasized how meaningful it was to speak Navajo again – after a very long spell.

FLC actor John (Jaiden) had been silent, but when he spoke, he did so with intensity and conviction, not unlike his portrayal of the younger brother, Jaiden. “This was not just acting,” he said emphatically, “Jaiden is the hero of this story. Jaiden comes in yelling. I would, too. I have a sister. I could not imagine what I would do if she went missing.”

John talked about growing up in a Native family and sometimes feeling burdened by his culture. Then he shifted to life as a student and performing in his first Indigenous play: “… here at Fort Lewis College. It provided a way for me to reconnect with my family and with my language.

“My grandparents are still here,” he said at the end of his story. “They would be taken aback by what happened here today.”

Through tears, James (Isabella) haltingly added: “It’s hard,” she said. “Being in a play like this is a journey. There has been a lot of reconnections and a lot of healing.”

The talk-back ended when Gleason thanked PlayFest for inviting the cast and crew for “monsterSLAYer.” and restated the importance of Native theater.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.