She Still Has Some Horses: Joy Harjo’s New One Woman Show
On the night this week when musician-poet Joy Harjo (Mvskoke-Creek) took to the stage at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, to begin her brand new one woman play, “Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light,” the audience sat back in their chairs, sensing we were in for a ride like no other, a one woman show that only Joy Harjo could deliver. As the most well known female Native poet of her generation, and the 2009 Nammy Music Award winner for best female artist, Harjo has–for three decades–truly been a renaissance woman. Now in her late 50s, Harjo is at the height of her powers, still one of only a handful of Native musicians and poets who have been able to get their own stories out to a wide audience– whose stories have not been ignored, twisted, distorted or maligned by others.
Harjo’s decision to delve into the realm of playwriting has been met with great excitement, first with the premier performance at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles, followed by performances in Anchorage Alaska and in Massachusetts, and on May 7th, at the Public Theater in New York City.
The show, an intricate weaving of spoken word, story telling and song, tells us the sometimes brutal, sometimes poignant, often funny, sometimes universal story of a little girl who must first go back and look for lost pieces of her soul in order to emerge whole as an adult. Interlacing verses from some of her most beloved poems, with bellowing, weeping, happy notes from her saxophone, Harjo tells us of growing up with her waitress mother, her father who died mighty young, and then the man she called her “mother’s keeper” — whose violence resonated with that told by Dorothy Allison in Bastard out of Carolina, the story told by Alice Walker in The Color Purple, the story that all too many Native girls need to tell about assaults to their minds, bodies, and spirits.
Before the performance, Harjo explained that in the show, she takes to her saxophone when there are no words, to a place deeper than language, in those moments, making gorgeous melodies with the 2008 Grammy award winning guitarist Larry Mitchell. Artful in his ability to follow but not upstage Harjo, Mitchell accompanies her with his alternately bluesy, country, jazz, and folk rhythms. Seeing the two of them on stage reminds us of the relationship that Native Americans have had with Black people in the US, their shared status as colonized people, how Native people have long protected and nurtured Black people even as Native people have been defiled and run off their land. We hear this history in their music, in her story, in their body language on the stage.
The simplicity of the set design—a small kitchen table, a shawl, a blanket, a whiskey bottle—suggests a certain elegance, paring us down to the essentials in her story, harkening back to the Trail of Tears when Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw could only take what they could carry, if that. With this set design, Harjo brought us back to a point when we all weren’t for sale, back to a point when our humanity was not lost in an overly-produced, plastic, and hard world.
Amidst that simplicity, Mitchell and Harjo illuminated the stage with their talent, treating the performance as a ceremony that began with Harjo inviting the audience to sit with her at the kitchen table and ended with her giving a gift to everyone of the 400 plus people who came—oranges, chocolates, dream notebooks, shells, gifts that she reminded people, we could take back to our communities. She ended the show by asking the three young New England Natives who opened the evening with their own songs to join her, honoring the intergenerational circle so central in Native life.
If you feel the need for an evening of truth telling, healing and joy, don’t miss this performance when “Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light” comes your way.
This blog was co-authored by Diane Harriford and Crystal Rizzo and is cross-blogged on the Ms. Magazine website.