When Playwright Lauren Gunderson took on the challenge of adapting J. M. Barrie’s 1904 Peter Pan, she knew she had to fix what she has called the “deeply harmful misrepresentation of Indigenous people in Tiger Lily and her family.” In her version now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company (retitled Peter Pan and Wendy and directed by Associate Artistic Director Alan Paul), the character of Tiger Lily has been completely reconceived. No more the helpless princess in distress, Tiger Lily is now a spirited and fearless Native rights activist whose people thrived in Neverland long before Captain Hook’s pirate ship dropped anchor and Peter showed up with the Lost Boys.
Gunderson, who is white, has acknowledged she could not have righted the wrong in Tiger Lily’s character on her own. She recently posted on Facebook:
To honor the Indigenous women and men who have inspired and advised me while creating our strong, funny, heart-full Tiger Lily (especially Isabella LaBlanc who originates the role and is breathtaking) I will be donating 25% of my royalties on this and all future productions to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center[, which is] dedicated to restoring the sovereignty of Native nations and safeguarding Native women and their children.
Isabella Star LaBlanc is a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota stage and screen actor based in Minneapolis (her bio is below), and her performance as Tiger Lily is radiant (as I wrote in my review). What I did not know till I talked with her was how the deeply personal influence she had on the role made for one of the most powerful moments in the play.
John: I’d like to begin by talking about your acting background and activism. You’ve said that the lack of Native representation in film and theater is part of your motivation to be an actor.
Isabella: Definitely. I come from a family of activists and really a community of activists. I’ve grown up around people on the front lines, and I know that I’ve been able to live the life that I live as a proud Indigenous person because of activists that have come before me and that raised me.
But in so many ways that kind of frontline activism has never been where I found myself. I’ve always found my activism through my art and through acting. I come from a community where we’re so often ignored and so often left out of the conversation. So to be able to stand on stages and to demand to be seen and heard feels like my most powerful tool.
When I started acting, I don’t think I’d ever seen a Native person on stage, much less heard a Native story on stage. To be part of a larger collective movement of Native theater artists who are working toward making sure that more Native people can see themselves in the stories we’re telling, and non-Native people can learn about our existence, feels exciting and feels important to me. That’s why this has become my work.
In the national CBS Drama Diversity Casting Initiative, you were one of 12 actors chosen out of more than 10,000 submissions and 450 callbacks. What has that meant for you?
It was my first year out of high school, I was 19. and it was one of those opportunities that you never in a million years expect is going to happen. It started with submitting a tape online and then I had a callback in Chicago and then ultimately went to L.A. It was the first time I’d ever traveled for work.
It was a lot of firsts for me. It was an incredible learning experience. I got connected with my manager out there. I learned about auditioning and things like what you want from an L.A. headshot. But what really stuck with me was that it taught me this work was possible for me—I don’t think I had quite let myself believe that yet.
When you grow up as a Native kid, you don’t get to see many examples of what it means for a Native person to be an actor or what that path looks like or means, so I don’t think I’d let myself dream too much yet. That experience planted the seed in me that I am allowed to be in these rooms and I have a voice that people want to hear or will ask to hear. Before that experience, I would have never dreamed of being at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and working with the people I’m working with now.
About that same time, you wrote and recorded a deeply moving personal essay called “Proposed Adjustments to American History Curriculum” in which you said in part,
I already knew I was history incarnated, treaties and massacres made flesh. I knew that being Indigenous in America means carrying history no one else wants to hold.
How did you come to write that?
That piece came out of my experience having been out of school for some time but still finding myself feeling a lot of the same outsiderness in many rooms that I walked into, and realizing that I needed to grapple with some things that I experienced in high school. As a Native student, I really struggled in American history class. I grew up knowing that history is who I am, it’s been passed down to me through my family and the people around me, and I carry it with me every day. So to go into a class that should and could be about how tangible history is, but instead have it feel like the opposite, was painful. It felt like an intellectualization of what makes us us and what makes us a nation. It felt like removing anything personal and anything meaningful and making it instead about names and dates and debates, and I was like, Where is the space for me as a Native person to talk about where I come from? When do I get to unpack the stories I hold in me?
I wrote the piece in collaboration with the Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, which is a really amazing theater company started by Lou Bellamy and is now run by his daughter, Sarah Bellamy. They are the foremost African American theater company in the country, and they also have a really incredible education program that goes into schools doing race and equity workshops.
Do you remember your first exposure to the Peter Pan story, and do you remember who Tiger Lily was to you then?
I don’t remember ever reading the book or seeing the movie, but Tiger Lily and Native representation in Peter Pan has always been this omnipresent thing I feel like I’ve always known it. And I think as a Native kid I never was drawn to this story because I knew how unfairly and untruthfully it represented me. For as long as I remember, Tiger Lily has been a sore subject.
Who is Tiger Lily to you now in Peter Pan and Wendy?
That’s a lovely question. And Tiger Lily is so profoundly different in Lauren’s version that it is hard to remember what she used to be. I feel really lucky that I’ve gotten to discover her in a new way. I see in her so much of the women I’ve grown up around—Native women who are profoundly strong and fierce and funny and passionate. To me Tiger Lily is an amalgamation of generations of very wonderful, powerful Native women.
As the story opens, Peter has been flying off to London to hear stories from Wendy that he can bring back to Neverland to tell to the Lost Boys. There’s a scene about that in the second act that I found just stunning. It’s when Tiger Lily says to him:
TIGER LILY: There were dreamers here before you, Peter. I thought you knew that, I thought you were fighting for us. But you don’t care. You’ve never cared! You fly off every night for more stories, but have you ever asked for mine? My people have generations of stories, and you never once thought to ask.
Would you talk about that speech and how it came to be and how it feels to say it?
You’re spot on. That’s my favorite line in the whole show. And getting to say that speech every night on that stage feels like such a gift.
That speech was a very late inclusion in the script, and it came in the rehearsal process because that was a scene I really struggled with at first. There was something that wasn’t feeling right about it. I went to my stage manager, Joe [Joseph Smelser], and I said, Hey, can I chat about this with Alan and Lauren when we get the chance? And he said, Absolutely. And Alan and Lauren were both totally game to listen.
In the original version of this scene in the sea cove between Tiger Lily and Peter Peter, Tiger Lily is trying to make Peter have this come-to-Jesus moment. And what I was struggling with was that I didn’t feel there was enough in the text about what Tiger Lily is fighting for, what Tiger Lily really comes from. When I think about myself as a Native person and my experiences as a Native person, it’s always about who and what I come from. I know that I come from an incredibly rich culture and people, and the hardest part of living in a country that hasn’t respected them is feeling like I don’t get to have space to honor them.
I felt that was the crux of what Tiger Lily was struggling with: She wanted Peter to see that she comes from people that she loves and she comes from a culture that she loves, and that’s what she’s fighting for—while he’s just fighting. There’s this heartbreak in realizing that someone you think is your friend hasn’t quite gotten the opportunity to fully understand you yet. And I felt like that scene was much less about anger at Peter and it was much more about hurt.
Stories were something that came up in that conversation with Lauren and with Alan, this idea that there’s a throughline in the show about there not being stories in Neverland, and so I told Alan and Lauren a lot of what I just told you. As a Native person my whole life I’ve been saying, Why aren’t we telling the stories that I’ve grown up with? Why aren’t other people asking for these stories when I know we have them?
It’s just a brilliant moment in the play, so thank you for raising that. It had to have been an aha moment because it plays that way.
That story does feel central, and I’m so appreciative that it reads. I did feel an immense responsibility to this story, and I so appreciate that Lauren made the space and really had a willingness to listen and collaborate in a way that I know is very special. And I do appreciate that because of those conversations, I get to say that line now.
Looking at the big picture of Native representation in theater, what do you believe needs to happen and why does it matter?
I’m very excited about what’s happening with Native theater right now. I think we could be on the cusp of Native theater renaissance. I think about the work Larissa FastHorse is doing and her The Thanksgiving Play being everywhere, Mary Kathryn Nagle and her show Sovereignty. OSF [Oregon Shakespeare Festival] has been producing a lot of Native stuff. There are a lot of really wonderful Native theater artists being produced in really cool places right now. And that’s because of decades of work from Native artists; that’s built upon generations of people demanding that our stories are heard. What’s happening right now, or what should happen, is there’s this new understanding that Native theater and Native stories can and should be universal.
What do you wish playwrights, artistic directors, and casting directors knew and understood?
For so long the uphill battle has been convincing theaters and theater makers that Native stories can be marketable, that there are audiences for them, because as much as we don’t like to admit it, theater is a business. And building a season and commissioning work is all about, Okay, what’s going to fill a house? What’s going to sell tickets? For a long time, there was this myth that Native stories wouldn’t do that, that there wasn’t enough interest, that there weren’t enough artists to even tell them. But we’re seeing more and more that that’s not true.
August Wilson built a career telling the stories of pain and power in the African American community, and his work was not only met with interest from American theater audiences but they were enamored by it. We’re learning more and more as a theater community in America that our nation is built on Black and Brown stories. As long as we’re a nation and as long as we’re still grappling with our past and with our future, we have to tell these stories, and I think people are ready to hear them and listen to them. So I’m excited and hopeful about a new era where we get to let go of these ideas about what’s producible and what’s not.
What advice would you give to a young Native actor starting out?
What I’ve found most powerful and most useful is not allowing myself to feel like an outsider—reminding myself that I’m allowed to be in these rooms, that I should be in these rooms, and by being in these rooms, I’m able to bring different stories. That’s what theater is about. As theater makers, we’re all asked to bring ourselves and our stories into this work. Coming from an underrepresented community this work gives me a platform to share underrepresented stories, to be a new voice in a room. That’s allowed me to feel a little more agency and a little bit more space for myself in this work. Often it can feel a little alienating to be the only person that looks like you or has come from where you come from in a room. But if you allow that to be your gift to the people around you, it makes it much more exciting.
I have one last question. It goes beyond theater and it’s about the current political situation in America, but it’s a question that Peter Pan and Wendy speaks to:
When you—whose people were on this land first—watch what this administration is doing to immigrants and other people of color who now live here, what do you wish you could say?
Oh, I love that question. And I think you’re so right that that’s what the show speaks to. Lauren’s script really is at its heart about reconciliation. It’s about asking us to reflect on our effect on the people around us and how we live our lives and how it affects how other people can live their lives.
I wish we had more appreciation for the fact that as humans we need each other. I come from a tribal people, and we’re taught that everyone contributes to a community, everyone brings something to the table, and everyone has something to offer. I wish that we would take better care of each other, and that we had a better appreciation for the fact that we’re all better off when we’re more concerned with collective instead of individual well-being.
Isabella Star LaBlanc is a Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota actress, writer, and storyteller. Originally from Minnesota, Isabella has been seen at the Children’s Theatre Company (Peter Pan); The Jungle Theater (The Wolves, Little Women); Minnesota History Theater (Tales Along the Minnesota Trail); and Mixed Blood Theatre (Autonomy). Outside of Minnesota, Isabella has worked in Portland, Los Angeles, Cincinnati (Cincinnati Shakespeare Company) Syracuse (Syracuse Stage), and now Washington, DC (The Shakespeare Theatre Company). On screen, Isabella was recently seen in Missy Whiteman’s Coyote Way: Going Back Home courtesy of the Sundance Native Film Lab. In December of 2016, she was one of twelve selected from 10,000 applicants for the Inaugural CBS Drama Diversity Casting Initiative.
Isabella’s work as a writer has been performed at the Penumbra Theater Company, Pangea World Theater, and The Guthrie (Water Is Sacred, Stories from the Drum). Her script “Writing a War Novel” was a finalist for the 2017 Yale Young Native Storytellers Festival. Her piece “Proposed Adjustments to American History Curriculum” was featured in The Minnesota Women’s Press, August 2018 issue.
Peter Pan and Wendy plays through January 12, 2020, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sydney Harman Hall – 610 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122 or go online.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes. including one 15-minute intermission.
READ “‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ at Shakespeare wows with wonder in a woke dream.” Review by John Stoltenberg.
READ “Playwright Lauren Gunderson had one stipulation when reworking ‘Peter Pan.’ The sexism and racism had to go.” Interview by Nicole Hertvik.