Restorying Our Past and Present, Imagining Our Future

Osiyo and good morning, everyone. I’m Ronee Penoi, Laguna Pueblo and Cherokee, and like many here, I wear a lot of hats. I’m a presenter, an advocate for Indigenous peoples and decolonization, and a composer. This morning, however, I want to focus on us.

I’ve had a lot of vulnerable conversations with folks in this room about how difficult the past few years have been in our field and in our world. There’ve been a lot of obstacles and necessary systemic change has been slow. But we continue to process, grieve, and heal as individuals and as an industry. We come together in moments like this to celebrate our wins and lift each other up. Any anxiety we’re feeling doesn’t diminish our strength. In fact, I think our courage to be vulnerable, to not know the answers, is just what we need. It might feel like we’ve missed our window after 2020, 2021, and 2022, but as they say, sometimes it can take a long time for conditions to be just right for change.

So while this is a difficult time, when I look at this room, I’m optimistic. All of us are sitting in collective discomfort, questioning our assumptions about presenting live theatre. We’re asking anew what’s working and what’s not—and that’s exactly where we need to be.

My own inquiry of questioning assumptions has led me to think about the impact of live theatre. Live theatre is culture. Culture is a reflection of society—and one cannot exist without the other. No culture, no society. No society, no culture. When we think of societies past, its culture that we remember—from the pyramids to Shakespeare. So what does our culture, our live theatre, say about our society? This, to me, is where we have the most untapped potential as a field. We need to lead in restorying and imagination; restorying for our past and present and imagination for the future.

If we want to live in a world that’s different, we can’t wait for society to make it comfortable for us to do so—we have to imagine it, build a road from here to there, and walk it.

It all comes back to story. As one of my favorite writers Thomas King says, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” I know this being Pueblo and Cherokee. For Indigenous people, stories tell us who we are. They contain roadmaps for life—critical information on food, history, and place. Moreover, Indigenous peoples know how the stories that have been told about us have been a matter of life and death. The story of the savage Indian sent my great-grandfather to Carlisle Indian School. That story is the reason my family walked the Trail of Tears. Stories are tangible, living things.

America has a strong national story—a mythology. It’s rooted in the founding fathers, in Thanksgiving, in gun ownership. We are, in this myth, the saviors of the free world—exceptional, democratic, benevolently capitalist—and we’re taught that American history is white history. We often talk about the fact that the arts are a place where we can share more and different stories than those offered by this American myth—and amplify marginalized voices. However, I propose that what we really need is to rewrite, or restory, our dominant American narrative.

Now I’m not suggesting there is only one history—our past is a complex web, as is our present. But identity, the story we tell ourselves about who we are, is the biggest constraint to change. All we need to see is a few posts on social media or a few minutes on CNN to understand how our stories shape and constrain us. If we want the arts to be part of imagining a better future, we need to start using the arts to restory our past and present. Our national story. Our personal story. Restorying means rewriting the dominant narratives that define us. Until we do, every future we imagine is going to be built on a crumbling foundation.

So, what does restorying look like? It can look like presenting Cherokee artist Delanna Studi or Mohegan artist Madeline Sayet and their works debunking the notion of the “vanishing Indian” and manifest destiny. It can look like Step Afrika’s Drumfolk, elevating the Stono Rebellion to a place of significance equal to that of the Boston Tea Party. It can look like Carolina Performing Arts’ presentation of their “Southern Futures” initiative that excavates their region’s complex and violent past with an eye towards a more just future. This looks like the fieldwide members of the International Presenting Commons uplifting international work and collaborative practices that challenge American exceptionalism and celebrate the porousness of borders and ideas. It can look like interrogating the plaques on our walls and the memorials that stand just outside our doors. It is knowing our watersheds and how environmental racism is affecting our neighbors next door.

Restorying challenges the dominant narratives we live our lives by and that is incredibly powerful. Many folks in this very room are doing this restorying work but might be calling it by another name. However, I believe this is only half the battle. We need restorying and imagination—and imagination is where we really need to be brave.