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The Guthrie Theater has been infused with a novel, burning spirit.

A Dakota elder walked around the rehearsal room with a smudge of smoking sage on the first day of rehearsal for the theater's latest show, "For the People." The actors, director and theater staff all fanned themselves in fumes as part of a traditional cleansing ceremony that is as new to Minneapolis' most renowned performing arts company as the play itself, a contemporary Native American comedy.

While Marsha Norman's stage adaptation of Louise Erdrich's novel "The Master Butchers Singing Club" played at the Guthrie in 2010, "People" is the first majority Indigenous work to grace the stage. Its playwrights, Larissa FastHorse and Ty Defoe, are both Indigenous as are many of its principal designers. It stars iconic actor Wes Studi, who played warriors real and fictional in, respectively, "Dances With Wolves" and "Avatar." Studi acts alongside a company with notable Minnesotans but also Indigenous screen veteran Sheri Foster Blake ("Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt").

Commissioned by the Guthrie, "People" arose out of listening sessions held in Minneapolis over the past several years. As they sounded out Native Americans, FastHorse and Defoe found that community members had a keen desire to see Native American characters who were hilariously funny. The people who stirred the playwrights' imaginations wanted to laugh.

In "People," an idealistic young Native woman named April Dakota is trying to open a wellness center on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, the Indigenous cultural artery known for colorful Native-themed murals, the Ancient Traders Market where Maria's Café offers up sweet corn pancakes, and All My Relations Gallery. April pitches her idea to some Native elders in the hope of getting a grant.

"It's a lot of heart wrapped in comedy and humor," said FastHorse, who has built her reputation on writing with zip and wry wit. "The Thanksgiving Play," her comedy, played on Broadway last year.

"People" is about "yoga, love, family and belonging with a few jokes here and there," deadpanned Defoe, who likened the writing process to "jumping around on stones in the river."

The inviting spirit in which the work was conceived did not end with the completion of the script. Defoe, FastHorse and director Michael John Garcés have been insistent that their rehearsals remain open so that community members can observe their creative process. Some have even offered suggestions of their own.

"That's how we work," FastHorse said. "We have to make sure that the community is centered, and that we're being of service to them instead of the community being of service to us."

Garcés, head of Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles and also a playwright, has worked on many projects with FastHorse over the years. He said that consensus-building is central to their collaboration.

"With three people, we've been very fluid," he said. "Ty works with actors on the singing and music and created a whole section of the play that's rhythmic. Larissa has a deep practice of dance and she brings a lot of fluidity to the room."

Still, the idea that that a play can be opened to community input is not always welcomed, especially in a field where the stereotype of the genius director with the arresting vision still has currency.

It's a mistake to think that this process doesn't have strong vision, Garcés said. It does.

"Philosophically, because of how we enter community, we're really open to change," Garcés said. "Sometimes there's real discomfort in that process. But our vision for the play gets realized as fully as possible. We don't have to agree on everything. We simply have to come to the place where it makes sense for all of us so that we get something aesthetically beautiful and funny."

"People" lands at a time when those claiming to be Native American continue to be outed. But the idea of what is true and authentic culturally doesn't just apply to those inventing false ancestry. Within Indigenous communities, there are also those who have not done the rigorous work to steep themselves in the history and culture of resilient Native Americans.

"People" asks "What does it mean to come home when someone is trying too hard to fit in?" FastHorse said. "What does it mean to be a part of something that you haven't earned?"

'For the People'
Who: By Larissa FastHorse and Ty Defoe. Directed by Michael John Garcés.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 12.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $29-$82. 612-377-2224 or