Can you imagine an Indian reservation in the middle of the Bronx?
Morgan Peters did. From that incongruous image, the UMass Dartmouth professor also known as Mwalim conceived a play set in a “triple square block of buildings” that is “the rez” — slang for reservation — for racially blended members of a Native American tribe.
“Wetu in the City: An Urban Black Indian Tale,” performed recently by the New African Company at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, weaves a witty drama full of historical ironies and cultural exchanges between red and black people.
The timely production comes during a period when Barack Obama’s presidency has encouraged mixed African Americans to acknowledge being more than just black.
One is Peters, who embraces both African and Mashpee Indian ancestry. His embrace of Native lineage has not cancelled out his black heritage, or vice versa. Both racial backgrounds share space in the personal identity of the English professor who is also director of African and African American Studies at Dartmouth.
The play he has written is not as fanciful as it may sound. A tribe called the Waquasiq once inhabited the Bronx’s west side and supposedly disappeared sometime after Dutch and English settlers arrived. While living in New York City, Peters wondered what would have happened if the tribe, pronounced Wah-kay-seek, had instead blended into the new population.
His surmise of a red-black fusion has historical grounding. The Smithsonian’s “IndiVisible” exhibit, on which Peters was consulted, noted that many Eastern tribes reflect that mix because of the side-by-side enslavement of Natives and Africans in the early colonial era. The Mashantucket Pequot of Connecticut are one example.
Peters uses more recent history to make a Bronx reservation plausible. In an unsuccessful effort to rebuild the South Bronx, then-president Jimmy Carter offered buildings there for sale at a dollar apiece. The imaginary rez was assembled for $15, which “Wetu in the City” casts as a pretty good deal, given another tribe long ago sold all of Manhattan for the equivalent of $23.
The play’s central conflict is whether to exchange the Bronx buildings for a large undeveloped parcel in Vermont. The corporate suitor, represented by a solicitous Native American who looks white, has a name that sounds uncannily like a tobacco company’s. Will Montezuma’s cancer-causing revenge pay big dividends?
A young, morally challenged member, Attucks, played by William Burroughs, is an aggressive advocate for holding onto traditional land. His name is a reference to Crispus Attucks, who was black and Natick Indian. The play’s Attucks is one of several characters who reflect the high-energy, animated manner of black New Yorkers of the hip-hop generation. Rap music was born in the Bronx.
Richardo Engermann put in a skilled performance as Uncle Sebby, a wise elder, affecting the short steps of an old man whose feet hurt and muscles are stiff. Trinidad Ramkisson pulls off the young, meditative Calvin, who literally stumbles into his Native ancestry, falls for the receptionist and, at the play’s conclusion, muses about cutting his tightly curled hair to accommodate his broadened identity.
What sounds like Native American language is sprinkled through the dialogue. Peters says the words were actually made up to avoid offending any particular tribe. The “wetu” of the title is a low, dome-shaped dwelling with a frame of bent tree branches.
Foods mentioned represent a cross-cultural blend. Uncle Sebby describes a traditional tribal meal as “beans, corn and fish, no salt.” Some members act offended when a woman brings greens and watermelon to a reception for the tobacco company’s representative, who, eager to make a deal, gushes about the fare and eats more than one helping.
Peters takes a veiled shot at the Cherokee Nation for racial intolerance. Attucks complains of going to college in Oklahoma and spending “four years around these white-looking Indians, and they didn’t respect me as a ’skin.”
It’s possibly a reference to Bacone College, a Baptist school founded in 1880 to serve Cherokees. In 2007, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma expelled descendants of its former slaves from the tribe, despite an 1866 treaty’s guarantee of tribal citizenship. The issue is being fought in the federal courts. Most enrolled members of today’s Cherokee Nation are more white than red.
The modern Waquasiq that Peters imagines does decide to trade their urban rez for the green acres of Vermont, an embrace of the value that Native Americans place on the natural world.
Today’s Bronx is not the Bronx that was once the tribe’s sacred space.