Review: ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn)’ by Nelwat Ishkamewe Two-Spirit Theatre

A Native American trans femme youth finds affirmation of her true self.

American theater blows off a lot of folx. Leaves out their voices. Doesn’t cast them. Isn’t interested in their stories. Two-Spirit indigenous transpeople, for conspicuous instance, are among the marginalized and erased.

In theatrical retort, an emerging arts collective called Nelwat Ishkamewe (which means Indigenous Root) is presenting a sublimely compelling solo performance piece that intentionally centers the life and ancestral lineage of a Salvadoran Two-Spirit trans femme youth named Alex.

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul as Alex in ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn).’ Photo by Angel Garcia.

Alex enters to a boppy beat-box track with a backpack on her back and a jaunty yellow flower in her hair—and she minces no words. She is angry that her native language and culture have been violently stolen. She is angry about the self-hate that results (“our internalized white supremacy, our internalized transmisogynoir”). And she is determined to reclaim and celebrate her identity through ceremonial communing with her ancestors (whom at one point she calls transcestors).

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul as Siwayul in ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn).’ Photo by Angel Garcia.

The actor who plays Alex (as well as three other characters in masks) is also the playwright, Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul. Xemi, as she is known to friends (it’s pronounced Shem-ee), is herself “a Two Spirit Trans Womxn from Kuskatan (El Salvador),” as she explains in an enlightening self-profile. Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn) is a “one-Femme theatrical play” adapted from a book of her poems—and the language in the piece is by turns piercingly personal, stirringly spiritual, and harrowingly political.

In the work, playing briefly at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Siwayul is one of the masked characters Xemi plays: the revered deity of Two-Spirit Womxn. When Xemi speaks as Siwayul, her voice is prerecorded as though from an ancient oracle.

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul as Siwanawal in ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn).’ Photo by Angel Garcia.

The parenthetical in the title, Heart of a Womxn, refers to a realization that Alex comes to that she is not, as some have othered her, a gay man, but that she is in fact, as Siwayul reassures her, a trans femme with the heart of a womxn—an affirmation that the piece celebrates, in poetry, song, and dance.

The black box space is set with black-draped tables holding masks, a drum, Alex’s signature yellow flower, and Alex’s tablet. A captivating track of indigenous drums, flutes, and vocals weaves in and out of the dozen scenes, and pools of light follow the actor around as if seeking a way through the dark. One of the characters, appearing in a skull mask, is Siwanawal, the spirit of La Llarona of Indigenous Mesoamerican folklore. Xemi’s performance in this fierce passage achieves a stature almost tragedian as her now deepened voice becomes a wail for all weeping womxn.

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul as Nantzin Paula in ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn).’ Photo by Angel Garcia.

A third masked character is Nantzin Paula, a historical figure who helped revitalize the Nawat language. Xemi performs her scene wearing a grinning mask in Spanish and in Nawat, and sings a song completely in Nawat. Here and at other points in the show, when Xemi acts from behind a mask, it is as though emotions are released and selves and spirits expressed that could not be so rawly real otherwise.

One senses throughout that Alex’s quest for clarity and certainty about who she is (and has every right to be) echoes Xemi’s own journey to selfhood. That resonance of autobiographical authenticity is what makes Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn) all the more truthful, all the more urgent, and all the more worthy of witness.

Credits:
Spirit Worker/Siwayul/Siwanawal/Nantzin Paula/Alex: Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul Director: Alexa Elizabeth Rodriguez
Choreographer: Dane Figueroa Edidi
Stage Manager: Ahanu
Set Designer: Emmelia Talarico
Costume Designer: Angel Garcia
Prop Designer: Emmelia Talarico
Mask Designer: Ahanu
Graphics Designer: Emmelia Talarico
Sound Designers: Ahanu & Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechu
Light Designer: Emmelia Talarico
Hair/Make-Up: Angel Garcia
Assistant Stage Manager: Reignbeaux Xochitl
House Manager: Kariwase Duprey

Running time: 55 minutes with no intermission. Performed mostly in English with some Spanish and a little Nawat.

Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn) plays through April 12, 2019, presented by Nelwat Ishkamewe Two-Spirit Theatre performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased by email (contact@nelwatishkamewe.com) or online.

The 8 pm performance Friday, April 12, will be ASL-interpreted.
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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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