Nikkole Salter, a Los Angeles native and township resident since 2008, has written a play titled, “Indian Head.” According to Luna Stage, the work was commissioned in partnership with the NJPAC Stage Exchange, a program of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
The story of “Indian Head” is about the use of a Native American image as a high school mascot. The action of the play takes place in fictitious Chipeekany High School, located in Cumberland County, NJ, during the course of two weeks leading up to a championship football game.
The mascot of the team is the image of an Indian warrior. But the play takes aim at the misuse of the word “Indian” as it does with the appropriation of all Native American images and customs for common use.
There are four characters. Rachel, 17, is a Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape. She attends the high school and believes the symbols of her culture are being denigrated. She refuses to watch this happen. Patricia, 44, is Rachel’s mother. She is more accommodating to her cultural surroundings but much of this is to mollify the football coach for her daughter’s sake. Jeff Smith, 35, is the coach. He is a black man and a remnant of the last great football team at the school. Brian Kelly,18, is the team captain and star quarterback. He sees nothing wrong with using the mascot.
In the notes to the play, Salter specifies that the roles of Rachel and Patricia must be played by Native Americans. Also, any Native American objects used in the play must be genuine and handled properly.
In a recent telephone interview, Salter said the idea of the play began slowly.
”When I moved to New Jersey, I was taken by the names of the towns,” Salter said. “I thought it was odd. There were all these names but where are the people?”
Salter said there were many towns in New Jersey that had Native American names but no evidence of the culture that produced those names.
She had been commissioned once before by Luna Stage to write a play She wrote, “Lines in the Dust.” The artistic director of the theater, Cheryl Katz, contacted her again.
“The last push was a request from Luna,” she said. “Katz asked if I’d write another play.”
The theater was committed to producing plays about the New Jersey area, Salter said. Her play, “Lines in the Dust,” was about the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, the case that struck down school segregation. The plaintiff in the case, Oliver Brown, she said, was from New Jersey.
Salter told Luna Stage she was interested in writing a play about Native Americans.
“One of my ancestors is a Native American,” she said in the telephone interview.
In her notes, the play is dedicated to her mother and to “my indigenous ancestor Elizabeth Fayerweather, Narragansett Tribe.
Salter did not immediately know why she chose football for the sports team using the mascot. She thought maybe it came from her husband’s interest in football.
“People don’t tailgate for basketball games,” she said. “I know they say baseball is the American pastime. But in my lifetime, it’s football. The sport requires more of a communal organization.”
She said she made a personal commitment that all the objects, or props, in the play had to be authentic in order to honor the Native American community.
“So much of their culture has been appropriated and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” she said.
While developing the play, Salter, who is also an actress, contacted Native Americans she knew from working in the theater and asked them for advice. One colleague put her in touch with the tribal chairman and principal chief of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe.
She intentionally made the character of Coach Smith a man of color because she thought this would make the actor “conversant when confronting the historical trauma of his race” and consequently the performance would be more nuanced.
“In writing, I try to explain why a conflict is a conflict,” she said. “I hope ‘Indian Head’ demonstrates this.”
Casting for the roles had its difficulties, Salter said, and the casting of Coach Smith was problematic.
“Where do you find an Afro-American in that age range, in February, who is not working?” she said.
There was also the difficulty of finding Native American actors for the roles of Rachel and Patricia. And there was a problem with rehearsing.
Salter said Luna Stage is a small theater, around 100 seats. The size of the theater determines how much the actors must be paid. The smaller the theater, the less time the union permits the actors to rehearse.
For the few weeks of rehearsal the production team was allowed, Salter was rewriting parts of the play. The actors constantly had to adapt. She said not many actors were willing to go through this stress.
But the play’s the thing and Salter said her play is about a part of New Jersey people would love to see.
“Come, learn about your neighbors,” she said.
“Indian Head” opens to previews Thursday, Feb. 2. It will be performed Thursdays through Sundays, until March 5. Opening night is Friday, Feb. 10. Curtain times: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 3 p.m. Admission is charged.
There will be talkbacks with the actors and Salter following the performances on Feb. 4 and 16.