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Accomplished playwright to teach Native American drama course at ASU

June 10, 2022

Madeline Sayet currently touring country in one-woman play 'Where We Belong'

Madeline Sayet is a busy woman these days.

She is touring the country this summer and fall in her autobiographical one-woman play, “Where We Belong,” inspired by her heritage as a member of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut, and described by Broadway World as “one of the great artistic achievements of the pandemic."

Sayet, who has been named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and received the White House Champion of Change Award from former President Barack Obama, also is preparing to teach a Native American drama course (ENG 350: Studies in Literary Histories and Traditions) in the spring of 2023 at Arizona State University in her role as a clinical assistant professor in the Department of English. Sayet has been a member of ASU's faculty since 2021.

ASU News spoke to Sayet about her play and why she decided to join ASU’s faculty.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: How would you describe “Where We Belong”? Playbill's coverage references your trip to England to pursue a PhD in Shakespeare and finding a country that refuses to acknowledge its ongoing role in colonialism.

Answer: It’s very abstract. It is about a wolf who becomes a bird. It’s also about my journey to the UK to pursue a PhD and how it mirrors the journeys of my Mohegan ancestors in the 1700s who had to travel to England for diplomatic missions and service for our people. And it’s also about Shakespeare language and colonialism. Those are my three little tidbits. I haven’t figured out for the life of me how to make an actual summary.

The thing that I really enjoy about the structure of the piece, and other people seem to find unique and surprising, is that time kind of layers it. I try to stay true as much as possible in both the storytelling and the form of it to sort of the Mohegan principles and philosophy. But time doesn’t stay linear throughout it. There are movements between 2016 to 2022, but it also moves back and forth across history from as far back as the 1600s.

Q: Where did the inspiration to the write the play come from?

A: When I wrote “Where We Belong,” I wasn’t actually trying to write a play. I had just moved back (to Connecticut) from the UK, where I had been pursuing a PhD in Shakespeare, and it was the first time when I came back home where my feet didn’t root quite right to the earth anymore. Up until then, whenever I came home, it was so obvious that this was the place of my ancestors. And I was feeling sort of disconnected, and I was thinking about my Mohegan name, which means Blackbird, and sort of that perspective of having been flying and flying and flying constantly, and what that changed.

So, I started writing it just as a way to process sort of what I was feeling about. I was also thinking a lot at the time about oral tradition and about the power of traditional storytelling. So, I was like, “What if I take a few moments of stories from my ancestors and I put them together in the form of how a traditional story would be told with this sort of parable of what it means to become a bird (and fly away)?” It was really just an exploration, and I didn’t expect anyone to be like, “This should be a play.” But as I shared it, people really resonated with this question of belonging and what does it mean as an Indigenous person in a globalized world, but also about how borders are constructed and the importance of language. A lot of the play deals with my relationship to my Mohegan language and then the language of Shakespeare and how those two things carry different weight and value in society.

Q: It’s obviously a personal project for you. What was it like the first time you performed it in front of an audience?

A: It was at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. It was making me so sick because I was going to go up there and question Shakespeare and they’re all going to come up and beat me or something. But it was really powerful. They were really responsive to it. It was like an immediate standing ovation. They said it helped them see the space in a different way. What I found is for the people who it does help, it either liberates them because it’s something that resonates or it reframes the way they think about things.

Q: You created a Community Accountability Rider that venues showing your play must agree to. Among the conditions are complimentary tickets for Native audience members, a commitment against any programming featuring red face and an agreement to create an engagement plan to build relationships with local Indigenous communities. Why was that important to you?

A: Once I decided I was going to tour, I was really nervous that the tour itself would become kind of a colonial thing. And it would take the kind of like, Native spot, used to check a box. So, I created the rider. They must present work by a local Native writer that they develop relationships with and have an event around language revitalization. So, it's specific. How are these issues specific in this place, but different from my story? That’s been really rewarding because it means it’s an opportunity for me to interact with Native missions where I am doing the show and learn more about the art and work that’s happening there.

Q: So, what made you decide to teach the Native American drama course at ASU next spring?

A: As I said, at one point I was pursuing a PhD in Shakespeare and I did end up leaving that because, honestly, in addition to sort of the complicated things about academia, especially academia in the UK, I also found that I could just be of more serveice as an artist.

But then during the pandemic I was on a Zoom panel (in 2021) with Ayanna Thompson (a Regents Professor of English at ASU), and as a student she was like a hero to me because she’s such a figure within the field (of Shakespeare). We were talking about Shakespeare and colonialism, and after that panel she said something about, “Hypothetically, if we were to put together this cluster hire, would you be interested in joining us?” Honestly, the group of people I was coming in with in this cluster hire were Shakespeare scholars who I knew. I had read their work. These are people I really respect. And my office is going to be next to theirs. That was really exciting to me.

Q: How did ASU’s commitment to the Native American community influence your decision?

A: ASU has such an incredible relationship with Native peoples compared to most universities. I’ve never worked in a university that has more than one Native person on faculty, period. ASU has more than 60 and more than 4,000 Native students. I just thought, “Wow, if I’m going to be in an educational institution, this is the place what I would really want to be, where I feel the conversation could be moved forward so much more than any other institution I could think of.”

And when I was deciding what to teach, I was like, “Could I teach a class in contemporary Native drama?” I was really excited thinking about this large body of Native students and what I could contribute. So, I’m excited because it’s an opportunity to really take time with Native students and non-Native students to think about the breadth of the canon of Native theater right now. There are Native playwrights from so many different Native nations who are writing in different ways because they’re coming from different sovereign nations, but also because they’re different people with different aesthetics and tastes. The expansiveness of that and to be with really young people is really liberating because it helps them understand how much the genre is expanding. So, that’s really exciting to me because I love, I love teaching classes where we’re thinking about what we can carry forward and what we leave behind and what’s passed down when it comes to stories.

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

 
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Juneteenth celebration to highlight Black history, excellence

June 10, 2022

ASU Library co-hosting June 19 event at Arizona Heritage Center

Juneteenth is a federal holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the June 19, 1865, announcement from a Union Army general proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas.

It’s much more personal than that, however, for Jessica Salow, Arizona State University’s assistant archivist of Black Collections.

“It’s a celebration of my ancestors, a celebration of being Black and a celebration of understanding my place and our place as Black people in this country,” Salow said.

The ASU Library, along with the Arizona Historical Society and the Black Family Genealogy and History Society, will present a Juneteenth celebration June 19 at the Arizona Heritage Center.

The free event, which will run from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., will feature live performances, speakers and educational tables.

ASU News spoke to Salow about the event, the meaning of Juneteenth, the commodification of the holiday and why President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law is so important.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Jessica Salow

Question: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like Juneteenth isn’t widely known outside the Black community.

Answer: That is absolutely true. In some of the circles I’m in, a lot of people are just like, “What is that? Why is that significant?” Growing up, I never learned about Juneteenth in any of my textbooks or lessons. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started hearing about it, that I started understanding why it was significant.

Q: Given that lack of knowledge, how significant was it for President Biden to make Juneteenth a recognized federal holiday?

A: Within our educational system, (President Abraham) Lincoln is talked about, his Emancipation Proclamation and stuff like that. And then they end it at that. But then people need to realize and understand that when we’re talking about Juneteenth, it was two whole years later after the Emancipation Proclamation and these people still didn’t realize and understand that they were free. So, yeah, I think it was really significant.

I hate to say this, but I really do think a lot of people didn’t understand or realize the importance of Martin Luther King Jr. until he got a holiday. So, I feel like when you shine a spotlight … and this is unfortunate that the federal government has to come in and do these types of things, but when it gets brought up by the government people pay more attention to it. But there also needs to be more education about why Juneteenth has always been significant for the Black community and for folks to understand why it was celebrated and continues to be celebrated and deserves to be respected by people outside of the Black community.

Q: Given the recent events in the country and in particular the shooting in Buffalo where 10 Black people were killed, how important is it that we take a moment not just to celebrate Juneteenth but think about what it means?

A: The whole situation in general, regarding Black people and their safety … there’s always going to be a contingency of folks in the country who feel like they have superiority over folks. And for us to break that, for us to have the ability to teach people a different way or have people understand that we’re not the enemy and we’ve never really been the enemy, I think is really significant. We continuously have these events happen year after year. This is around the same time that George Floyd was murdered. It feels like every year around this time something significant happens within white supremacist circles or these types of oppression circles that brings to light why we need to continue to fight, why we need to continue to have a seat at the table and a voice in understanding why white supremacy is the way that it is and how it infects not just our minds but our systems.

Q: How does the Juneteenth celebration fit into that?

A: It brings community together. It brings all of us together into an understanding that we’re human beings, too. We just have a different skin color. It’s easy for the winners to tell their story, but it’s even more significant for the people who are oppressed to tell their story. And it’s even more significant for people who are not in those circles to understand how oppression affects folks. So, to be able to highlight our history, highlight our people, is significant because it brings more attention to the events that are happening, why we need to be more critical about our thought process, our teaching, and understanding why we as a society need to come together in order to support one another.

Q: We’ve seen companies try to commodify the holiday with Juneteenth products like ice cream. What do you think about that?

A: For me, I don’t want it to be a commodity. Unfortunately, that stuff is out of my control because I don’t control capitalism. I don’t control those systems that are in place in order to make a profit. My intent and purpose for this event on the 19th is to bring people together and celebrate and highlight community.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with the event?

A: Through our planning committee, we want to make sure that as many Black faces are at the table as possible to highlight this event. It’s important for us to make our voices heard. When we do this event, we are highlighting Black speakers and we’re highlighting Black businesses. We’re also highlighting the need to get out to vote and to understand the significance of your place, not just within your community or your family, but in this state as well.

We need to also realize and recognize our history. I think that’s what we’re doing first and foremost is to highlight and recognize our history, to bring folks in who can talk about and highlight that history and give it significance of why it’s important to us. We would like it to be a yearly event. We want to start doing a yearly celebration of Juneteenth in a way that would celebrate and highlight Black excellence, love, joy, and make sure Black people know they always have a place, and that we will do all that we can in order for them to tell their stories.

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News