The title of this show refers to the forgotten arc of Wounded Knee — the community that was thrown into a city of neglect as the federal government explored the size and shape of the reservation. At Lackawanna College’s Venue 7, Native American artists create a community that dates back to Mayan ruins, then joins the USA. Inside, where works hail from the Navajo to the Red Ash of the Iroquois Nation, Joe Gehrke tells a story that is the culmination of his life’s work. Born to a high school friend of the son of a grandmother who served as her son’s girlfriend, Gehrke was 17 when he walked away from the dream of a hockey career to become a writer and a dramatist.
As he tells us that he has worked with the Council of Directors of the National Indigenous Arts Center for the past eight years, it is clear that this is a story he has been telling since his childhood in South Buffalo. He says the first story he told his grandmother was about an old wooden bucket that told the Indians when the sun was up and the moon was down, but he never stopped. He now spends every weekend working on the Storyharbor, his arts center.
“Naughty Wyoming,” says Gehrke, who wrote, directed and produced the show, opening tonight at 9:15 p.m., is their answer to the Tenth Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which in November 2016 pushed through rules that would preserve the oil pipelines — including the abandoned Byerly’s Donlin Creek — and export more uranium, coal and natural gas through the Northwest of the United States. The title is an appropriate way to say “what a bunch of buffoons,” he tells us, explaining that his aim with the work is to remind us of a past when “the idea of Native people and America and cooperation and the essential respect between us and each other were never thought of, now we are living and seeing it every day.”
The show opens with Mo’ Echo cries that they are working on a story, and we’re told that Gehrke’s work spans nine decades. With this remarkable organization, we know where he gets his inspiration, the scenes projected on the screen of the Venue 7’s two screens are so life-size, it almost feels like we’re part of the show.
Other times Gehrke uses performance techniques to attempt to fool the audience into believing they are a part of the story. In one piece he places the beadwork of Native people onto his body, then throws it out when he stops speaking. It’s trickery of the best kind. If that isn’t entertaining enough, he leads us into a conversation with an artist in a traditional lifestyle. This is live art of the highest level.
In another piece he switches between the tribal heads, funny and serious, and more than once I was so taken aback by the intensity of his delivery that I wanted to reach out and make him laugh. It is a poignant performance in itself, but when the lights come up at the end it’s clear that we know this story inside and out. We have become part of the project, as Gehrke tells us that we “can help if you can work.”
At the end, we’re asked to sing, “Eagles Fly” for the end of the show. We do, and we mean it.
If you see it: Laugh: No Invented Game, Monday at 8:15 p.m., (run until Sunday). Play: Open every night, except Sunday, June 25, for free. Tickets: Available at The Venue 7, 950 Lackawanna College Dr., at the door, as well as at teeenoisbill.com/lackawannablues.