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Selling Their Souls 

The characters of a first- time playwright choose their own slavery

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
The title of Greg Sarris' new play is an epithet, something like "house Negro." Mission Indians traded their freedom in the California deserts, beaches, and forests to lead settled lives of slavery under the Spanish monks. Their descendants sharecropped on the ranchos. And their descendants -- as defined by an apocalyptic old Indian in cowboy boots and a flannel shirt known as "Grandpa" (played beautifully here by Luis Saguar) -- are today's mission Indians and the focus of Sarris' play.

The show opens with a textbook passage about Miwok and Pomo Indians, recited by an eager and sometimes annoying little boy, to the effect that pre-Columbian tribes were generous, sharing, and free. The boy belongs to a modern dysfunctional family in Santa Rosa. His father, Bob, sells used cars. "We're part Pomo, aren't we Dad?" the boy asks, and Bob denies it in a rage. "We're Mexican!" he shouts.

Bob knows better, though. His grandfather is the apocalyptic old Indian in cowboy boots, who owns a sizable chunk of undeveloped land near Santa Rosa. Bob wants the land for himself. (He'd like to build a casino.) After his father dies, clearing the way for the inheritance from Grandpa, a hip young stranger from San Francisco shows up to introduce himself as Bob's half-brother. Now Bob has a rival for the land, and the rest of the play is about their maneuvers for position, and about Grandpa's refusal to die.

The character of Grandpa -- a wise, terse elder tribesman, with gray hair and mustache, who sees and knows more than he lets on -- could easily slide into cliché, but a combination of sharp writing by Sarris and pitch-perfect acting by Saguar makes him the tough, sturdy trunk of the show. Grandpa hates Bob, but sees some potential in Joey, the stranger from San Francisco. He introduces Joey to the graves of his ancestors and tells him about the land's history. "You know what a mission Indian is?" he says. "He's a slave. Got his land taken away and his soul wit' it." Joey likes Grandpa, but his motivations aren't pure. A scheming gay Russian River lawyer (who keeps hip boys like him as catamites) has encouraged Joey to go after the land.

The role of Joey is a good stretch for Sean San Jose. He tends to play sullen, masculine, Sam Shepard-style drifters, but Joey has yellow-dyed hair and a fey excitability; San Jose does nice work with his twittering, phony persona. Michael Torres is also strong as Bob -- a seething volcano of frustrated money schemes and desperate, selfish lies -- although sometimes he seems to line-read. Catherine Castellanos plays Bob's wife, Meredith, as a believable suburban mom, and Louis Parnell isn't bad as the whiny, controlling gay lawyer. Gabriela Barragan does what she can as Bob's overeager son, Jason, a character who's only in the play so that he can read textbook passages about Indian history to the audience.

The show has its problems: Bob and Joey's petty bickering, after a while, feels relentless and contrived, and Joey's sudden speech about his own dark history is forced. Bob is a one-dimensional ass. A plot twist at the end steers the play toward melodrama, and directors Nancy Benjamin and Margo Hall have paced a few scenes too quickly. But Saguar counters most of these problems with his performance as Grandpa, culminating in a bleak monologue about his own sins against the family. Grandpa's lack of romance makes him a powerful and sometimes grimly funny presence on the stage, especially when he starts to interview Joey about the joys of anal sex.

Greg Sarris has never written a play before. He's best known for a novel of linked stories called Grand Avenue, about Native American life in Santa Rosa. (Sarris grew up in Santa Rosa and serves as chairman of the Federated Coast Miwok Tribe; he teaches English at Loyola Marymount in L.A.) Campo Santo and Word for Word mounted a story from Grand Avenue in 1998, and in this respect his career as a playwright parallels that of Denis Johnson, who world-premiered two plays at Intersection after a Campo Santo/ Word for Word production of a few stories from his book Jesus' Son.

These relationships with Intersection are fruitful, and I'd like to see more plays by Sarris. Mission Indians has flaws but also a solid conceit. Free people, Sarris wants to say, don't bicker selfishly over land and develop it with casinos. They don't neglect their families. They don't put their grandparents in old-age homes or lie to strangers for profit. By this definition of liberty, everyone in the play is a mission Indian. Who, after all, is truly free?


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