Free as a Bird: An Examination of Our Belonging to the Goodman Theater

Madeline Sayet in “Where We Belong” / Photo: Liz Lauren


Many local cultural events in Chicago now begin with an acknowledgment, often pre-recorded, that the land where the event takes place – the land where the audience sits – is the usurped homeland of Indigenous peoples. It also reminds us that the Native Americans have not left the city and that a large local population remains attached to their traditions and their urban life. A busy culture vulture will often hear the statement and might get used to it. That is, until it was delivered live, on stage, by Madeline Sayet, singer-songwriter Mohegan whose autobiographical solo show, “Where We Belong,” takes place in the intimate Goodman’s Owen Theatre.

The Mohegan people (not to be confused with the Mohicans) are still centered around their homeland in Connecticut. Sayet’s great-aunt founded the Tantaquidgeon Museum in that state in 1931. Her mother pushed the U.S. government to recognize the Mohegan as a tribe, an effort that required compiling extensive genealogies. Historical ties and continuity mean a lot to Sayet and his people. So when Sayet emerges on his set, a serpentine mound of earth on stage and a celestial array of lamps above, and takes the stage to acknowledge the heritage of local tribes, “Where We Belong” is already a tour de force. . The performance gets even better as she delves into the journeys she made, presumably in her twenties, that linked her personal story to her people’s past among the victors and their vital present, in part by digging deep into Shakespeare’s work.

Sayet is an endearing storyteller who crosses several universes. In the spirit world, his physical grace transmits the bird which is his inner spirit. Indeed, she states that the play is not about Shakespeare and is not a traditional Mohegan story. It’s about how she became a bird. But she delivers a healthy dose of Shakespeare and Mohegan stories to get there. As she crosses borders, from the United States to Sweden, and more particularly to the United Kingdom, where she travels to research the bard and prepare a doctorate, she takes on the voices and affects of most many significant but culturally awkward characters she meets along the way. Her own character in the play is someone filled with the critical sophistication of a scholar married to youthful wonder.

For Sayet, Shakespeare’s poetry and the apparent fullness of his human understanding fill a void left by the impending death of the Mohegan language. She believes the mother tongue of her ancestors could have been used to express her condition had the language survived, but now Shakespearean verse is a substitute for the language she will never fully have. Sayet also finds in Shakespeare a stealthy anti-colonialist who captures and articulates the otherwise unspeakable horrors that stem from one people’s urge to dominate others. It’s not a crazy idea. After all, before its days of overseas empire, the British Isles were settled by the Romans and Normans; Scotland, Wales and Ireland were colonized by the English. Shakespeare’s stories and tragedies are full of usurpations. Caliban, the half-human being from “The Tempest”, intrigues Sayet. (The play may have been inspired by tales of early travelers to the New World.) As a colonized tribe, Caliban is considered monstrous by those who want to enslave him but cannot talk to him until Caliban has learned the language of the conquerors. . Sayet’s academic advisors see she’s onto something. Sayet also does real theatre. She directs a Shakespeare play on her own terms. She is the first Native American to perform Shakespeare in the UK. In other shows, she struggles with the directors’ semi-awakening and grumpy, clueless symbolism.

His own faith in Shakespeare’s anti-colonialism is also weakening. This plunges her into crisis.

In her anomie – an occupational hazard for graduate students – she stumbles across a London cemetery. There she finds an inscription on a stone that pays homage to a Mohegan. sachem (senior official), who traveled to England at the beginning of the 18th century to ask the king – his supposed equal – to respect a treaty obligation, but never obtained an audience. It’s a marker, not a tombstone. His ancestor is one of many in an unmarked grave and therefore his remains cannot be returned to his Mohegan descendants in Connecticut. Sayet will eventually end the story of how she becomes a bird, but offers an intriguing treasure trove of story along the way. The grave leads her to the British Museum. There, she hears of the infamous ways the institution locks up people from other cultures whose artifacts the museum claims to safeguard. A smug curator tells him that the museum not only refuses to return artifacts, it also holds the remains of 12,000 humans (the museum official admits 6,000), many of whom are North American. “Everyone freaked out when they thought Shakespeare’s head was missing,” she says, “but nobody cares about the native bones.” From the point of view of a people, like the Mohegan, who regard the remains as hosts for the spirits, the museum is an abomination. And for Sayet, the visit is one of the highest dramatic notes of his show. Of all the weird customs, she says, the strongest of all British customs is how they distance themselves from colonialism. It is a moment of deep melancholy. Sayet does not linger.

“You won’t remember me as sad,” she says. Approaching the last chapter of his transformation into a bird, his show takes a magical turn that mixes movement, and even the beautiful singing of Sayet. (More please!)

This show is a powerful dramatic monologue, full of joy, wonder and intelligence that also miraculously connects a people who have fought forced oblivion to those of us who sit in seats in theaters at sites in the traditional homelands of the indigenous peoples who are very many among us.

“Where We Belong” is at the Goodman Theatre, produced in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library, until July 24.

James C. Tibbs