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Native Sun News: Native play rumbles onto New York City scene

The following story was written and reported by Christina Rose, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Shaun Taylor-Corbett

Distant Thunder rumbles into New York theatre scene
By Christina Rose
Staff Writer Native Sun News

For the many that were disconnected from their culture, whether through boarding schools, adoption or a multitude of other reasons, a play is in development by professional Broadway actors with a full Native cast and input from the Blackfoot Tribe in Montana. The first reading of the show was done at “Native Voices at the Autry” in Los Angeles, a workshop where Indigenous people throughout the country participate in the development of Native theatre projects.

According to an announcement released by the producers, “'Distant Thunder' tells the present-day story of attorney Darrell Walters, a young half-Blackfoot/half-white outsider raised in Chicago, as he returns to his tribe seeking reconciliation with his father and unwittingly sets off a firestorm of crisis.”

The play doesn’t fall far from the truth of co-authors and mother-son team Lynne and Shaun Taylor-Corbett. “My son’s father is Blackfoot, and when Shaun was about 14, he was not very connected to him. Shaun became a darker person. He felt different and he looked different than the other kids at school,” his mother said, knowing that she had to do something.

Lynne took Shaun from his New York City home and drove to Montana, where she met with Thomas “Redman” Little Plume, one of the fluent speakers of the Blackfoot tribe who started a movement to reclaim the Piegan language. “We made a journey one summer to Jackson Hole. I was convinced to leave Shaun with the tribe, and during the next 10 days, he was put up in a tepee lodge and learned about his heritage. It was an extraordinary experience and it changed both of our lives,” she said.

Describing his experience, Shaun said, “I always want to explore my identity. Something was calling me. My mother suggested that maybe it was time to take me to the reservation. We met these great people, including Darrel Kipp.” Kipp is an educator and language instructor for the Blackfoot tribe. “He let me stay with him in his cabin for five days.”

Shaun stayed in touch with Kipp through occasional emails and a return trip several years later. “They knew I was trying to reconnect, and they saw me as someone who could promote the languages,” he said.

Preserving the Blackfoot language is the driving force of the play, which shows that when an Indigenous language dies, the culture begins to die around it. Described as a contemporary play that will combine musical theatre with Native American music, Shaun believes it has the potential to reach many people and bring awareness to many of the issues Native people are facing today. At the same time, he says the play can stand up to any Broadway Musical. “I want to do this in a huge way, I want it to have a national impact and influence,” he said.

The play will be presented as a staged reading In New York City on Feb. 28 and March 1, which means that there is no real production or costumes. The actors may stand and read, or walk through the dialogue but much is left to the audience’s imagination for the time and place. This allows continued development of the script and is also a way for producers to see it and possibly fund it. All of the actors are of Native descent, and many are enrolled in their tribal nations.

Joseph Firecrow, Northern Cheyenne, best known as the Grammy-nominated flute player and many times winner of Native American Music Awards, has a part in the play. Firecrow said he is often hesitant to respond to casting calls but he felt this one was something special. “It’s a story about a warrior going back home to meet his relatives; and there is a land thing, the old days. It’s a colorful story with great humor, and they did their homework and got all the characters right.”

For Firecrow, the part is a bit of a stretch compared to the traditional Cheyenne music and singing he is accustomed to performing. “It is a musical with show tunes, but it is not a traditional style. I did the 49s in college, and I learned a lot of the Cheyenne Songs at the drum, even did some competition singing and drumming. I’ve worked with bands, and every now and then I will sing in English, but not full out like this. There is some stuff you have to train yourself to do,” he said.

Xander Chauncey, Shawnee/Chile, is a professional actor and singer and is in the cast of Distant Thunder. Describing the show as “musically gorgeous” he said that the first time he heard the rehearsal tapes from other performances, he got goose bumps. Speaking about the show, he said, “How the tribes had been swept under the rug is timely,” but that wasn’t the only tie that bound him to the production. Getting to know his Chilean father is something he has been working on, too.

Chauncey knew of the Taylor-Corbetts through shared friends and theatre experiences. Lynn Taylor-Corbett starred in the role of Cassie in “A Chorus Line” on Broadway, and her son Shaun appeared as a dancer and singer in “In the Heights” on Broadway, a story of a young man from the Dominican Republic bridging the worlds between his own culture and America. Being in the show had an important influence on Shaun. “That show really inspired me to see what musical theatre can do with culture. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics, gave me a lot of inspiration. It was such an amazing adventure,” Chauncey said.

Describing Shaun as calm, compassionate, and very connected to the material, Chauncey said, “He is very open to collaboration; a very humble, nice, old soul, and clearly very talented. I have the sense this musical has legs. It rides that fine line between traditional musical theatre and pop-rock but because of the subject matter and beautiful script I think it will appeal to a wide range of audience members.

“I love the show,” Marissa Quinn, Lipan Apache, said. “It is universal but yet specific to the Native experience. The circles that people go through coming from a reservation or going back home, you wonder; can you bridge the culture between those two worlds? It’s relevant not just to Native people but to other people from different cultures. How does culture thrive in the modern world?”

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