I do not know enough Indigenous stories. If the names Uncas, Mahomet Weyonomon, Samson Occom, Fidelia Fielding, and Gladys Tantaquidgeon are unfamiliar to you — as they were to me — you must see Where We Belong, a Mohegan story written by a Mohegan theater maker and performed by a citizen of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

Photo by Jingzi Zhao, courtesy Portland Center Stage

I don’t think I’ve ever learned more or been as changed by eighty minutes of live theater in my life. Where We Belong somehow covers hundreds of years of culture and trauma, one modern journey of identity and purpose, and even an analysis of The Tempest, all the while making the narrative accessible to every audience member, no matter what stories were taught to us in school. And all of the heaviness is infused with so much humor and buoyancy throughout, that audience members can hold it. The show is kind in that way.

The entire story is performed by the character Achokayis, skillfully played by actor Jessica Ranville. It is fitting to have this story told by one Native voice, in much the same way that Achokayis feels the responsibility to “stand in love for the tribe” — almost always the lone voice in classrooms, universities, the British Museum. A show like this requires a talented performer, and Ranville delivers. Despite a decidedly gradual pace, the performance was so captivating to me that my back hurt from unconsciously leaning forward the entire show.

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I never thought I would find a bare fluorescent bulb beautiful, but the gorgeous production design by Hao Bai proves otherwise. The lighting is a gorgeous part of the storytelling, but audience members should know that there are moments of strobe-like lighting effects.

Should you bring your teen? Absolutely. The show is recommended for ages thirteen and up, but if you have a bright tween at home, I bet they could follow the story, too. There are obviously dark topics addressed, including racism, war, stolen language, colonial theft of human remains, repatriation efforts, and stories of children taken from their families and enrolled in residential schools. I would recommend reading a plot summary of The Tempest, if you and your teen are not familiar with the play. It’s the only part of the show that the storyteller assumes the audience already has a working knowledge of.

Typically after seeing a performance at Portland Center Stage, my husband and I talk all the way home about what we loved, what surprised us, what was brilliant. After Where We Belong, we were quiet, the only words being a soft acknowledgement of how powerful the experience was.

Near the end of the play Achokayis tells the audience that these stories change us. I feel changed.

Complimentary tickets to this production are available to all Native people. Contact the box office at 503-445-3700 or boxoffice@pcs.org to reserve.

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Where We Belong
Written by Madeline Sayet
Directed by Mei Ann Teo
A Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company production presented by Portland Center Stage in association with Folger Shakespeare Library
Tickets start at $25, but find amazing ticket specials here, including pay-what-you-will night.
Please don’t miss this powerful performance.

Meg Asby
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