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On the journey to find where she belongs, Mohegan playwright has New York City solo piece premiere

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The Public Theater

Mohegan playwright Madeline Sayet is set to premiere her solo piece at The Public in New York City Friday night. After years of studying Shakespeare and storytelling, Sayet will showcase the play titled, "Where We Belong." It tells the story of her journey to find identity within her craft, culture and what it means to belong.

WSHU’s Jeniece Roman spoke with the show's playwright Madeline Sayet about the piece.

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Bret Hartman
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The Public Theater
Madeline Sayet

MS: My piece deals a lot with the intersection of Shakespeare, language, and colonialism because it tracks my journey coming of age in different spaces, and particularly surrounding my journey to the United Kingdom in 2015, to pursue a PhD in Shakespeare. And that journey is complicated for a lot of reasons, one of which is that there's a lot of ways that it mirrors the journey of my ancestors who had to go there in the 1700s, in diplomatic missions for our people, and what they're processing and learning as they go over there. And so there's that tension operating throughout the piece between trying to find your voice, when your voice is actually very intentionally been removed, that it wasn't an accident. And that struggle of trying to find places where you belong, when these things were very intentionally taken away.

WSHU: “Where We Belong." What made you decide that that was going to be the name of the play?

MS: It was always the name of the play before the play was fully written. And I think it's because there's a line in the play that came about I think, in retrospect before the play was fully written: “And I’m trying to remember a story.  A long time ago our ancestors told it to us. I think it has to do with where we belong.”

And it wasn't supposed to be: this is going to be the answer. Honestly, the play is like a bunch of questions that really are structured to leave you really thinking afterwards. I think that for me, it was really about this tension of home and what it means. It's not straightforward. But I know so many people want me to say it's called “Where we Belong” because we all belong at home at Mohegan, or it's called “Where we Belong” because maybe I belonged in the sky. It's really intentionally set up to force people to grapple with what it means for all of these things to be true at the same time. And in the case of this play, what does it mean to also be a native person who is traveling from country to country as a part of their work as well? To really be able to think about what does place mean?

The other part of the question is the actual feeling of belonging, and that there's no community of people who are ever going to fully get you, I think, is also a big part of the piece. It's not as straightforward as I can go to this space, and suddenly, I'll be normal. No, you're not going to go to any place where you're suddenly going to be normal. And so what does that also mean?

WSHU: Do you feel that by sharing that story, you've been able to make a connection with other people that feel the same way?

MS: It's usually people who have some similar experiences. And sometimes they're native, and sometimes they're not native. And they will be like, “there were things I was trying to figure out, and something about what you said illuminated this thing,” or somehow pinned it down for them in a way where suddenly they were like, “oh, that's what that is or that's what that feeling is.”

When it feels like it's waking something up in the audience, that's when it's really exciting for me because there's moments where I can hear them gasp, as if they didn't know something. And history happens, you know, and they sigh really loud. Even more exciting than when they laugh is these moments where they're genuinely surprised by these things that happen because suddenly, as they're going on this journey with me those things no longer make sense to them.

WSHU: What was it about speaking directly to an audience that made you decide that your play was going to be this solo piece?

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The Public Theater

MS: It wasn't really supposed to be a play. I originally wrote it kind of as a confession because the original version of the play, I became a bird. And it was written at this moment, when I first got back home after living in the UK for a while, and my feet didn't “root” quite right to the ground the way that they usually do. Usually, whenever I come home to Mohegan, it's super obvious, this is the place of my ancestors. And like I'm fully here, but I felt a little bit more distance.

Everywhere I went, I felt a little bit more like I was at a distance from everything. And I felt much more like my name, and like a bird. I was thinking about that. And I was actually really scared of that sensation. So the original draft was almost like a confession that was sort of shared just for me to be able to process with a very small group of people, what it was I was going through, and then people kept being interested in identifying with that journey.

And so I sent it to England, because I was curious what they would think. I wrote this to grapple with the relationship between Mohegans and the English and my relationship between here and there and what that meant over history. Suddenly, it's like, 'whoa, I'm gonna be questioning Shakespeare and colonialism, but doing it, you know, in Shakespeare's Globe,' which was really scary except for that one of my ancestors is buried right around the corner from there. And I was always thinking about it because he went over there in 1735 to petition the King for better treatment of our people, and ended up not making it back. And so I was always thinking about things like that.

I was always thinking about who are we honoring with this production? What is it changing? Can it shift people's consciousness. I actually was really terrified because it was so vulnerable. And when I did it the first time, I honestly didn't think I would ever do it again, because it was so painful. And it made me kind of sick the first time because I was so stressed about doing something so vulnerable. And then as time has gone on, my relationship to it has changed because when I share a story with the audience, I get all these messages and things where people share stories back and that exchange, I think, has become really powerful to me: the idea that there's story medicine, and in this exchange that's happening each place I go, where it still doesn't feel like a play, right, because normally when I do a play, that doesn't happen, but it's like it's like when I share something with them and then it resonates with them. They want to share a story back and that to me is really powerful.

Show details and tickets available here.

Jeniece Roman is WSHU's Report for America corps member who writes about Indigenous communities in Southern New England and Long Island, New York.