Review: Tombs of the Vanishing Indian (Native Earth Performing Arts and red diva projects)

by Ryan Kerr

Native Earth Performing Arts and red diva projects presents Tombs of the Vanishing Indian, set in 1970s Los Angeles, following the relocation and separation of three young sisters from their reservation, their mother, and from any cultural ties.

They are raised isolated from one another and develop into very different young women.  Sharing only their common sense of displacement and coupled with inherent 70’s era sexism and a few shady medical policies, they have started their journey into adulthood uphill.Jesse (Nicole Joy-Fraser), the eldest sister, is a doctor who shares a downtown medical clinic with her conservative husband, Dr. Hensen (Keith Barker).   After a couple of months working in the clinic, a patient of her husband asks to have her “womb returned.”  Jesse is horrified to discover that her husband has been sterilizing Native American women as part of a government initiative under the guise of “temporary contraceptive.”

The middle sister, Miranda (Falen Johnson) is a struggling screen actor who auditions for bit parts in low budget movies to pay the bills.  When she auditions to play an Indian in a low-budget Western, the director is both bothered and titillated by her determination to embrace the stereotype.  He takes to her like his groovy bellbottoms take to his legs.

Of the three sisters, Janey, the youngest (PJ Pridat), was least explained.  She was introduced to the audience while being interrogated by Detective Fullen (Martin Julien), who initially accuses her of murdering her own child.  Later, we discover that she is one of the victims of Dr. Hensen’s government complaisance. You can imagine how Jesse reacted to that one.

High above the stage in a box painted with blue sky and clouds, the spirit of the mother character (Michelle St. John) sat in a rocking chair, overlooking her daughters with protective contempt for all the white male perpetrators who would defile the sisters’ lives.  Her songs and screams were surtitled above a glowing orb setpiece which changed colour and pattern to coincide with the action taking place in front of it.

Playwright Marie Clements was inspired to write Tombs in 2003, after learning that visitors to a prominent California Native American museum visited primarily “to see a people that no longer existed.”  Tombs proposes several historical factors in this marked disappearance – from the sterilization already mentioned to emerging womens’, Indian rights and human rights movements.  It’s an interesting time and place for Clements’ discussion, but although I’m relieved to say that the far-out polyester pants and funky patterned shirts are relics of the past, the flagrant racism and stereotyping illustrated in Tombs doesn’t feel so distant.   I think that was her point.

Native Earth Performing Arts and red diva projects brought together a seasoned team of actors to tell Clements’ story, but despite their experience, clever sets and fluid staging, the delivery felt emotionless.  I felt that there was zero chemistry between any of the romantic characters, and the soliloquies of the sisters were oddly dramatic given the austerity of most of the other scenes.

Tombs ends with a solemn cry for the generations of Native Americans lost as a result of separation from their homes and culture, forced sterilization, and the racist, oppressive society they were forced to share with ignorant white men.  The three sisters are united in their grief, while the spirit of their mother descends from her lofty nook to join them.

While on paper the story of this displaced family was compelling, this re-enactment left me wanting more.



Runs March 10th to the 27th

Shows Tuesday – Saturday 8pm, Sunday 2:30pm

Pay-What-You-Can every Friday night and Sunday matinee


– Tombs of the Vanishing Indian is playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre @ 12 Alexander St.
– runs until March 27th
– Performances are at 8 pm with a matinee at 2.30 on Sunday
– Ticket prices are: $25, PWYC Friday night and Sunday Matinee