DAVIS, Calif. – Standing in front of a banner depicting an Indian mascot, wearing a traditional Cherokee tear dress, actress Delanna Studi held up a sign protesting Indian mascots as 30 people in D-Q University’s auditorium looked on.
Though the situation was fictitious and the conclusion of a staged production of “KICK,” a one-woman play, the message could not have been any more real.
D-Q University is just the latest stop in a four-year journey in which Studi, 23, has taken time out of her busy acting schedule to get the message out to various groups, mainly schools, about the issue of Indian mascots.
Though the event centered around the fictional production, “KICK” is actually a multi-faceted presentation in which the play is surrounded by a discussion audience members participate in both before and after the show, and lasts most of the day. It is sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the National Conference for Community Justice (NCCJ) a 76-year old non-profit organization whose mission it is to fight racial prejudice.
The performance of “KICK” and its ensuing discussion brought a diverse group of predominantly American Indian students from various backgrounds, who offered opinions and contributed to a strong discussion group throughout the day.
“KICK” was written by playwright Peter Howard and it centers on Homecoming week at fictional Newman High School whose mascot is the “Brave.” Though Studi plays all eight characters, Grace Greene, the main character, is one of the few American Indian students at the high school and follows her cultural awakening after an act of vandalism is aimed at the school mascot.
Throughout the 40-minute production, in addition to Greene, Studi plays, among others, a Chinese American news reporter, an African American coach, the male student body president and the school’s female principal. Through this cast of characters, the play subtly and sometimes not so subtly explores the mascot issue through an array of opinions and emotions and often contains surprises and an effective montage of props.
Studi, who obviously plays the role with quite a bit of emotion said there are definitely aspects of her real life contained in the play. An up and coming actress, Studi grew up in a small Oklahoma town with a Cherokee father who wanted her to become an architect. After studying architecture for a while in college, she quickly found herself drawn to acting and says she had to disappoint her father in doing so.
However, he proved to not be unsympathetic and gave her a week in Los Angeles to try to get things together. On the day of her scheduled departure, she found an apartment and an acting career was born.
Studi is a little reluctant to talk about her famous relative Wes Studi, who is her father’s cousin and star of various films including “Geronimo” and “Last of the Mohicans,” but she said she simply calls him “uncle.”
She concedes that her “uncle,” to whom she is fairly close introduced her to people but Studi is steadfast in saying that all he was able to do was “crack open a few doors,” and maintains that “the rest was really hard work.”
Like her character Grace, Studi often found herself at odds with the prevailing provincial mindset of her small town and says she was often classified in unflattering terms by peers and teachers for speaking her mind on political issues.
“Yeah, they called me ‘feminazi’ and other things when I spoke about I felt about certain things,” Studi said.
Since Studi’s father is a fluent and native speaker of Cherokee, she was brought up very aware of her culture and incorporates several strands of her cultural heritage into “KICK.” During one scene she is heard singing several lines from the Cherokee language version of “Amazing Grace,” which was sung by the tribe during their sorrowful march west to what is now the state of Oklahoma during the Indian removals of the 1830s.
During another scene a snippet of the “Cherokee Morning Song” is also heard during one of the pre-recorded interludes and the origin of the aforementioned “Tear Dress” is explained by one of the characters during the play.
Studi says that playwright Howard wanted to make the play about a Cherokee girl and she said that her input was asked during the initial creation of the play.
In addition to her social concerns, Studi is also an apt pupil of Hollywood mechanisms and the problems experienced by many Indian actors. She tells the story of a friend of hers who is full Mohawk who was turned down for a movie role because she did not look Mohawk enough.
“I guess she didn’t fit the Hollywood image of what a full blood Mohawk should look like,” observed Studi wryly.
Ultimately, Studi wants to smash the perceptions of who and what an American Indian actress can be and who they can play. Though her heritage is close to her heart and she’s proud and well versed in Cherokee lore, Studi said she does not want to be typecast and wants to take on roles that do not necessarily center on her heritage or at least portray it in new and original ways.
“You see doctors, lawyers, fireman, everyday people played by people of all different ethnic groups these days, why not Indians, I mean we don’t talk about ‘Indian things’ all the time, I mean, so much of our lives are lived like everyday people, why can’t Hollywood reflect that,” questioned Studi.
For now Studi’s star is on the rise in Hollywood. In November, Studi will have a starring role in an ABC Hallmark Hall of Fame miniseries “Dreamkeeper,” and has recently completed “Edge of America,” which was originally intended for Showtime, but whose producers are so happy with the final product that they are seeking theatrical release.
Studi will continue to supplement her schedule performing “KICK,” something that suits her just fine as she hopes to make a difference in the Indian mascot debate.
Natalie Sites, a Cheyenne River Lakota who works for the Alliance Against Racial Mascots (ALLARM) is the facilitator of the discussion both before and after “KICK.” Sites often travels with Studi to various locations to help raise awareness of the mascot issue. In fact, Sites, Studi and NCCJ Program Coordinator Julianna Serrano, who handles sound during the performances had to make the seven-hour drive to D-Q University for just that single performance.
Sites said that the whole endeavor is a labor of love and is glad to have Studi’s talents to help prompt the discussion of racial mascots.
“We are really glad to have the support of NCCJ and Delanna Studi in getting this message out, ‘KICK’ is an important tool to educate Natives and Non-natives alike about the importance of fighting racism in school and in art we can, perhaps, create the greatest understanding.” If you are interested in booking a performance of “KICK,” contact Juliana Serrano at (213) 250-8787, ext. 211.