“The Frybread Queen”: More Than a Handful of Recipes
In The Frybread Queen, playwright Carolyn Dunn, of Muskogee Creek and Cherokee descent, explores the competition that embeds itself in the relationships among women when there is a man in their midst — even when that man remains
only a shared memory.
A universal enough topic, but to Jane Lind and Kimberly Norris Guerrero, who portray two of the play’s fiercest characters, the story’s Native American setting makes it very personal.
“These women were like warriors in their own representation of who and what they are, dealing with a funeral,” said Lind, who is Aleut. “They have very strong lines that say things change, which in reality, they do.”
As the four characters come together for the funeral of Paul Burns, the man at the center of their lives, the women’s alliances, hopes, regrets and resentments bubble to the surface.
Lind plays Jesse Burns, the Navajo matriarch of the group and mother of Paul, who arrays tradition around her like an armor in a doomed effort to avert approaching change.
Norris (Cherokee, Salish-Kootenai and Colville), on the other hand, plays Annalee Walker Hayne, Jesse’s ailing Muskogee Creek former daughter-in-law, who maintains a fullback’s stance toward the world, determined to tackle first and ask questions later.
The plot is complicated and the relationships deeply intertwined. But each woman has a moment within the play to “shine,” as it were, when she recites her personal recipe for Indian frybread, a monologue meant to also encapsulate her essence.
“The recipes are a great metaphor and a great through-line for the way we as Native people approach life,” Norris said. “It’s different, it’s unique, it’s what tastes good to us, it’s what’s been handed down by our grandmas and we tend to stand fast (on it).”
And those recipes fit in with the play’s theme of the personal as universal.
“Every night, we’re bringing our personal stories, the stories of those that we love that we’ve heard, the stories that we don’t know that are going on out there right now,” Norris said of the cast. “For us, it’s beyond performance and into ceremony. We treat it very respectfully. It’s like a sacred thing .… I’ve never done a play that has felt less like a play and more like a ceremony.”
Norris, who grew up in Oklahoma, remembers a sister abused by
a boyfriend. Lind, who grew up in Alaska and was the adopted daughter of a Navajo code-talker, remembers her experiences in a government boarding school. Both call up what they’ve seen and heard both on reservations and off: the alcohol-soaked cycle of violence that results in one
out of three Native women being raped and three of four Native women experiencing violent abuse at some time in their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It’s not only our problem what is happening there,” Lind says. “It’s a universal problem.”
Norris said even her experiences as an actress inform this particular performance.
“We just had a group of Paiute elders come last Friday night,” she said. “Some of the things I was bringing in that second act were because I worked with their grand-kids at a film and music camp and I knew some of their stories. So the tears that were coming were tears that I was channeling for their kids. So everything is very real every night, and you never know what’s going to come to you.”
The chemistry between the actors — always key to the success of a play or film — is especially important here.
“It was all there, as soon as we met,” Norris said. “The relationships were all there. It was like we had just not seen each other for a while. We were all four new to each other and yet the minute we sat down at the table it was like an
immediate bond, immediate family.”
And for each performance, that connection is re-established at curtain call.
“As a unit, we try to bond, because the message is so very heavy and painful,” Lind said. “We have to have that time, the four of us, to tell. The last thing we do is, all four of us are touching each other onstage. Because we have to give it its life.”
Jean Bruce Scott, producing executive director of Native Voices, said the play took about three and a half years to develop, with numerous staged readings at the Autry where the audience reaction served as input to shape the script. Scott said a total of 18 actresses portrayed the play’s four characters.
“We always do an open call, an audition for whatever we’re doing, and these ladies walked in and walked away with the parts,” Scott said. “Elizabeth (Frances) and Shyla (Marlin) came in through the door… I love having people come in and win the part.”
Scott said the script changed considerably during that period.
“The very first time that we did the script, people looked at it more as a comedy,” Scott said. “(And) it has a lot of humor in it.”
The Frybread Queen’s final week begins tonight at at the Autry’s Wells Fargo Theatre.