Between Two Knees Gives Native American Massacres a Madcap Makeover | Playbill

Special Features Between Two Knees Gives Native American Massacres a Madcap Makeover

Actors Derek Garza and Wotko Long on not creating “trauma porn.”

Company of Between Two Knees Jeremy Daniel

The program for the comedy Between Two Knees comes with a content advisory that includes “depictions and graphic details of violence against Native peoples including war, genocide, and massacres,” and also “Nun-ja fights, Vaudeville, loud rapping, 31 wigs, 300 props, mime wolves, and a really big explosion.” So, audiences should know from the get that they’re in for a ride. But that ride is one with many humorous twists and unexpected emotional turns.

Between Two Knees is a century-spanning satire about a single Native American family set between the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, where over 300 Lakota were killed by the U.S. military, and the American Indian Movement’s Occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973. Before the main show begins, the audience is met by the narrator, who lists among his many sacred names: Sitting Buffalo, Big Eagle, Punches Kittens, and Larry. Played by Justin “Jud” Gauthier, this figure is a gentle guide for a white audience who is about to get roasted for the trauma inflicted on Indigenous peoples. “You are going to feel some guilt watching this. But don't worry. that's just what it feels like to be confronted with the source of your social power,” he tells the crowd in his opening monologue.

“We know that there will always be people where, it’s going to be hard for them to hear and listen and sit and be ‘othered.’ But that’s the purpose of it,” says actor Derek Garza. “This show doesn’t let anyone off the hook.”

The satire in Between to Knees is sharp, the action is farcical, and the overall story is often quite moving. It tackles trauma, and a history often left out of American textbooks, with gut-punching humor. The show was created by The 1491s, an intertribal comedy collective which takes its name from the year prior to the landing of Christopher Columbus and the following colonization. The 1491s started as a sketch comedy group and made a name for themselves with viral YouTube videos. Members have written for and acted in the television shows Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls. However, Between Two Knees is their first full-length scripted play. It premiered in 2018 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is currently making its New York City debut at Perelman Performing Arts Center, where it runs through February 24.

Company of Between Two Knees Jeremy Daniel

“This show is unlike anything I’ve ever done or been a part of and it takes Native people writing our own stories that allows us to do this,” says Garza. “If this show was written by a white person, it wouldn’t be a comedy. It would be trauma porn.”

The majority of the company have been with the show since its 2018 creation. They have formed a tight-knit family over the years, gathering for subsequent productions of Between Two Knees at Seattle Rep, McCarter Theatre, and Yale Rep. 

They're so close that actor Wotko Long told his Between Two Knees cast members to call him Pucv (poo-zhuh). It’s the Mvskoke word for “grandpa.” He’s a Mvskoke elder and song keeper who has only come to acting in recent years via invitation from filmmaker and 1491s co-founding member Sterlin Harjo. Long plays Older Isaiah to Garza’s Younger Isaiah. The show follows Isaiah as he is taken from Wounded Knee as a baby and placed in an Indian boarding school where he meets his wife Irma (the younger played by Shyla Lefner and the Older by Sheila Tousey). They escape (from those fighting Nun-jas—Catholic nuns brandishing karate moves) and begin a family life filled with even more tragedy, with a son fighting in WWII and then a grandson in Vietnam.

For Long, the show is very special (he says with hand over his heart), as it mirrors much of his own life experience. “I relate myself to this whole play,” he says. “I went to boarding school. My dad was in boarding school. I ran away from boarding school with my first wife. I went to Vietnam. And then in ’73, Wounded Knee, our unit went up there.” And while it may seem like an odd coincidence, it really is the story of many Native American men of his generation.

“I’m just glad that they brought it out to the public and that they are showing our humor,” says Long.

Company of Between Two Knees Jeremy Daniel

Both actors agree that humor has long been a tool for survival for many Indigenous people. While Native Americans are not a monolith, there are some identifiers that are common. “I think what defines Native humor,” says Garza, “is that it’s grounded in trauma. It’s punching upward because you’re already at the bottom. It’s very dry, self-deprecating humor. The only thing you can do is laugh, because if you don’t laugh, you’re just gonna cry.”

In addition to its Native creators and company, the production has done outreach programs at its various tour stops to make sure there’s a Native audience—like talk backs, ticket initiatives, and Native nights. Those Native nights have been particularly fun for the performers. “They get the humor and the subtleties of that humor. They see themselves and their community and the shared generational trauma that we all have to deal with. Every joke was a laugh, even the stupid ones that were just for us,” says Garza.

Long recalls a powwow tradition in which spectators gift dancers by placing money at their feet. “One night, Jud was out there dancing—it was at Princeton, it was a Native night—they came up and they were throwing money out there,” he says. “Just knowing that we’re all one big unit, it’s just incredible.”

That community is important for the actors, who often feel unnoticed in modern America. Garza tells of meeting a townsperson at a bar during the Yale Rep mounting. After a little conversation about the show and where Garza was from (he lives in the D.C. area), the man stated, “Oklahoma’s where the real Indians are.” Long (who is from Oklahoma) leans forward, with a full-throated laugh, as Garza tells the story. 

“I was like, ‘I don’t think we have enough time to unpack all of that. But, Indians are everywhere. You just haven’t been aware that they’re there or wanted to learn anything about them,” says Garza.

Long jumps in, adding, “We’re still invisible. I think this [show] is a big breakthrough. We’re out there now. We ain’t leaving.”

Photos: Between Two Knees at Perelman Performing Arts Center

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!