Whatever you think of the Native American flag and fight songs that have animated films and TV shows for decades, most have been pitch-perfect. Not so the discordant ditty near the top of "For the People," the 90-minute one-act that premiered Friday at the Guthrie Theater.
Delivered by members of the Franklin Avenue Task Force at the start of their regular meeting, the number is deliberately out of tune, with comical throat-clearing and off-key ululation. That rib-tickling racket — which sounds like an outtake from some lost film — sets the comedy's broad, irreverent tone.
A groundbreaking rarity, "People" sends up Indigenous traditions and contemporary Native mores. The laughs come from a place of respect and honor inside Indigenous cultures. The show riffs on tensions between city-dwelling folks and those who live on the reservation, between the different nations themselves, and between the young and old.
While some of the humor pivots on notions of authenticity and belonging, "People" reveals things that are common to everyday folks at large. Beneath our distinctive and colorful differences, including in clothes, foods and accents, humans have similar foibles and dreams.
Written jointly by playwrights Larissa FastHorse and Ty Defoe and artfully directed by Michael John Garcès, "People" is set on Franklin Avenue in present-day Minneapolis. With the help of her casino businessman father, Robert Dakota (Kalani Queypo), earnest millennial April Dakota (Katie Anvil Rich) is seeking to open a wellness center called, take a breath: Jimino bimaadiziwaad niij anishinaabeg Oyate Kin Thawápi For the People.
April also wants to indigenize workouts, doing pow-wow dances for cardio, adding her own moves to yoga and introducing vegan foods. But after her grant request is denied by the task force, she seeks help from New Age yoga friend Esme Williams (Kendall Kent), whose father is a wealthy developer and who herself is keen to "uptown" the neighborhood. Robert also leans on Esme for assistance and soon all the things that Native folks cherish about Franklin Avenue are put at risk.
Tanya Orellana designed the play's airy set, which is cheerfully lit by Emma Deane and adorned with vivid murals. Lux Haac created the costumes, whose brightness nods to a sense of hope and joy. Garcés has staged the action to maximize the laughs, even if sometimes audience members wonder if it's pitched at those who are not Indigenous.
News flash: "People" is for everyone. And Garcés makes sure we can all relate to its sense of wonder and renewal by including a breathtaking rain shower onstage.
The acting company, which includes Wes Studi and Sheri Foster Blake as spicy elders, is competent. There's no standout but they all work well together, even if they are still building comic muscles. Rich is humorous as April, and nails the scene when her character tries to use river rocks for workouts instead of prefab weights with their big carbon footprint.
On opening night, the show felt less like a play than a groundbreaking event attended by Native American leaders, elders and notables from Minnesota and beyond. "People" is studded with culinary and other cultural references, including a joke about pemmican, a traditional beef jerky-style food made from dried meat, berries and tallow that city folks somehow want to make vegan. Owamni, Sean Sherman's award-winning restaurant, is referenced. There's even a joke around supposed white saviors and "Dances With Wolves," in which Studi played a warrior.
Just hearing some of those subjects and names on the Guthrie mainstage is remarkable, although you don't have to know the intricacies of the culture to get the gist. As it generates laughs, the play also finds some tenderness, with the characters eventually getting on the same page.
That clear harmony helps to make "People" a funny valentine to — and from — Native America.
'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, guthrietheater.org.