Her Mohegan name means blackbird and she soars in ‘Where We Belong’

Performing solo, Madeline Sayet personifies her people’s heritage of women as powerful carriers of their culture.

“I fly, I fly,” proclaims Madeline Sayet repeatedly in her performance of her own monologue, Where We Belong, a video presentation from Woolly Mammoth and the Folger Shakespeare Library. She flies between ties to her Mohegan language and culture and her fascination with the poetry of Shakespeare. She flies between North America and the UK. She flies between performance and directing and the academic world. Her verbal flights are by turns graceful, humorous, angry, and reflective.

Madeline Sayet in ‘Where We Belong.’ Photo by Jon Burklund (Zanni Productions).

Sayet’s Mohegan name translates as “Blackbird” (more specifically, “the dark one who flies apart”), and she makes frequent reference to “Flying Bird,” Fidelia Fielding, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan language, who died in 1908 (and whose journals were only recently returned from universities that had held them). One of Sayet’s passions is to foster revival of that language, one of the many Indigenous languages that have been or are being lost, a situation that has drawn worldwide concern and program initiatives from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and UNESCO.

It’s not just a matter of keeping a language alive for its own sake, as an artifact. For Sayet, it’s a matter of preserving a culture, a way of seeing and living in the world — “the heart of a people’s culture is in its language,” she says. Native languages and cultures have been distorted and often overwhelmed by colonialist economic, military, and cultural force majeure. Reclaiming the Mohegan language is a way in which she as an individual, and her tribe as a group, can tell their own stories on their own terms.

And storytelling is crucial. “I was raised,” Sayet said in a March 2020 Yale News interview, “with this consciousness of story medicine and the idea that stories aren’t neutral: They can heal people and they can damage people. A lot of my own work is about the transformative capacity of stories. What stories do we need to bring us together; what stories do we need to imagine a way forward and create hope? What are the stories that enable us to create our best possible futures?”

Which is where Shakespeare comes in. As a younger person, Sayet felt Shakespeare’s words as a refuge from the tension between Mohegan and white culture. Going to London for graduate study in Shakespeare, she is struck by the fact that at the time Shakespeare was writing his words, the Mohegan people still had theirs. And Sayet came to see the systematization of Shakespeare’s stories, as she wrote in an August 2020 essay, as having a “role in the colonization of America [that] has enabled him to occupy a hierarchical space within a system of oppression.” She urges that we interrogate Shakespeare’s nearly godlike position in British and American culture in terms of the ”immense space he takes up and the other stories that are silenced because of this.”

Early in her career, one way she conducted this interrogation was by reimaging The Tempest with Caliban — an Indigenous person, not a monster — regaining his own language as Prospero and the other colonizers depart, while Ariel is a blackbird.

In Where We Belong, Sayet tells stories of fraught interactions between Mohegans and their Anglo-American colonizers. There was Mahomet Weyonomon, who traveled to England in 1735 seeking an audience with British officials about the situation of his people. He died of smallpox while still awaiting an appointment. There was Samson Occom, a Christian writer and preacher who in 1765 made a highly successful tour of England, raising some £12,000 intended for Indian education in America. The funds were diverted toward the creation of Dartmouth College. Sayet tells her own story of visiting a museum in London that housed thousands of human remains (“people,” she emphasizes), many of them unidentified, for reasons that a stuffy British curator (Sayet does a convincing stuffy British accent for the sequence) struggles to explain.

Madeline Sayet in ‘Where We Belong.’ Photo by Jon Burklund (Zanni Productions).

This museum scene is the most dramatic point in the show’s physical production, overseen by Director Mei Ann Teo and Production Designer Hao Bai. The stage throughout most of the performance is bare, save for curving shapes resembling low earthen mounds, under a curvilinear metal structure above the stage. The lighting is generally warm and subtle, with variations fitted to the mood of particular moments. But for the museum, there are instead horizontal and vertical lines of harsh fluorescent tubes, stark visual representations of the contrast of cultures.

Sayet, from her position flying from one place and culture to another, wonders about lines and boxes and categories. From the perspective of a blackbird, she notes, borders disappear. It put me in mind of the very British T.H. White’s King Arthur, musing at the end of The Once and Future King that “frontiers were imaginary lines [that] only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature.”

It’s more complicated the closer you get to the ground, Sayet says somewhat ruefully. One complication alluded to toward the end of the show is a graduation ceremony for Mohegan students, whose education was paid for by the Mohegan Sun Casino, a mega-monument to American capitalism at its most garish. Perhaps irony can also work its way into our stories.

Madeline Sayet in ‘Where We Belong.’ Photo by Jon Burklund (Zanni Productions).

What propels the narrative is that Sayet’s stories are very personal to her, the heritage of her people’s tradition of women being powerful carriers of their culture. There’s no lecturing here. There are stories of her mother, her elders, her responses to Shakespeare, and the ways she believes that her culture’s insights can transform theater (in a Ted Talk, she noted that the Mohegan term for “director” would be “our heart/she leads us there”).  She tells them seamlessly, conversationally, with feeling, ending in her own language.

The title of the show does not conclude with a question mark, but it could. Sayet’s stories raise questions about theater, Shakespeare, how cultures overlap, who gets to tell stories, and how stories can change the way we look at ourselves. Where We Belong does not force a conclusion, but invites the audience’s engagement with the questions.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Where We Belong — presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library — streams from June 14 to July 11, 2021. Tickets can be purchased online. This film has closed captioning available.

CAST
Madeline Sayet

CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Mei Ann Teo
Production Designer: Hao Bai
Costume Designer: Asa Benally
Sound Designer: Erik Schilke
Dramaturg: Vera Starbard

CREW
Stage Manager: John Keith Hall
Assistant Stage Manager/Wardrobe Supervisor: Andrew Cutler
Sound Engineer: Kaitlyn Sapp
Scenic Charge: Carolyn Hampton
Makeup Consultant: Dawn Newsome
Electrician: Kristen Roth

VIDEO PRODUCTION BY ZANNI PRODUCTIONS
Director of Photography & Editor: Jon Burklund
Second Camera: Milan Misko
Third Camera: Nana Tsuda
Sound Mixer: Stephanie Beattie

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