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Tales of an Urban Indian

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Darrell Dennis
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If it didn't seem quite so unlikely, I'd swear that Darrell Dennis was afflicted with stage fright during Tales of an Urban Indian, the play he's written and is starring in at The Public Theater as part of the Public LAB series. His quavering eyes, vocal tentativeness, and apologetic grip on the spotlight all bespeak apprehension. Who can blame him? Putting on a one-man show that must not only carry the weight for a people largely underrepresented in the American theatre, but also support and refute stereotypes of that group and present its sole representative in a less-than-flattering way would terrify anyone.

That fear, however, would probably be less immediately visible if the play he's carrying were better equipped to support itself. Vaulting in style between serious drama and stand-up comedy as blithely as it does locations between reservations and Vancouver, Dennis's play suffers from the same affliction his character, Simon Douglas, and other Natives face in the modern world: a lack of an identifiable identity. Simon spent his life either being quietly ashamed of his upbringing, or making jokes of it to better attract the popular kids (especially girls) - a lifestyle Dennis himself has been all too ready to adopt as his own.

Dennis adroitly conveys the sense of close-knit communities and societal poverty that have diminished his people since the Westward Expansion of the 1800s, and that have cast a blight on an inherently spiritual people. Growing up, Simon forsook one of his closest friends, mocking him (and partially encouraging his suicide) for being gay. He lost his virginity to a fly-by-night teen tart who wasn't afraid to let men use her when necessary. When older, he and his friends (one of whom was the son of the chief) thought nothing of driving drunk, with appropriately disastrous consequences.

Even after he moved to the West Coast and pursuing a career as an actor, Simon didn't come to terms with his upbringing. The surge of popularity in Native actors in the wake of Dances With Wolves energized him for a while, but when that dried up, so did he. He turned to drugs and alcohol, which gradually deprived him of both his livelihood and the love of his life. Battling his own sense of entitlement as well as others' garden-variety prejudices, Simon eventually turned to rehab as the only remaining way he might be able to reclaim himself and the soul he long ago abandoned.

Simon's story is frequently compelling, and if Dennis is not skilled enough a voice artist to sell the many impressions he attempts, he's a charismatic and energetic narrator of Simon's myriad misfortunes. But as a playwright, he fails at what would seem to be the play's most important task: connecting Simon's disintegration with that of his own heritage and beliefs. This is a gentle undercurrent throughout, represented primarily by Dennis's placing stones downstage to represent those around Simon who have died, but it's scarcely addressed directly until the play's waning seconds.

For it to have the emotional impact it should, it needs to be rescued from beneath the litter strewn about the rest of the tale. Several minutes (of 100) do not need to be sacrificed for a one-man burlesque delivered by the Irish priest who baptizes Simon, for example. And the compacting of some of his school and shooting-up travails would only help lighten what's often a very heavy and listless load. Director Herbie Barnes would also do well to focus his rather scattered staging and work with Dennis on modulating his energy - you're never guided as effortlessly from moment to moment as you should be.

Then there's Dennis's confidence problem, particularly in the first third of the show. Hopefully, Barnes can assist Dennis in overcoming his aversion to theatrical intimacy and eliminate (or at least reduce) the deer-in-the-headlights mannerisms that what should be an unsettling show instead uncomfortable to watch. Dennis shouldn't worry: Once he warms to the show's rigors, his laid-back talent and grace with the audience do shine through. If he and Barnes can tighten up the script and shed additional light on the larger meaning of Simon's struggles, the rest of Tales of an Urban Indian could prove to be every bit as engaging.

Tales of an Urban Indian
Through March 15
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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