If You Live in a Stolen Country, Expect Trouble
Debuting in Omaha, a new opera by composer Anthony Davis with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa isn't exactly a light fare, dealing with the poverty and displacement felt by American Indians of the 19th century. Timothy Schaffert takes in Wakonda’s Dream.
Opera Omaha’s innovative approach to promoting its events is often nearly as notable as the events themselves. To herald the premiere of Wakonda’s Dream, a new opera by composer Anthony Davis with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Opera Omaha launched the “Wakonda’s Dream Festival,” which encompassed poetry contests, art exhibits, lectures on American Indian art and history, a reading and conversation with Komunyakaa and former poet laureate Ted Kooser, workshops, an evening of jazz, etc.
In this case, the hype was in service of a tough, troubling tale.
At the center of Wakonda’s Dream are the Labelles, an American Indian family beleaguered by forces both real and surreal. Living hand-to-mouth near the Niobrara River in contemporary northeastern Nebraska, the Labelles are variously marked by disappointment and frustration, a fierce sense of family unity, and a historic injustice done to their forebears. Justin Labelle scrapes together a meager living, haunted by failure yet buoyed by the curiosity and ambition of his son, Jason, a boy given to visions that prove to be links to the tragic plight of their ancestors, the Ponca tribe.
In 1876, through a series of decisions both bungled and cruel, the U.S. government forced the Poncas from their small reserve near the Niobrara onto land that would later become part of Oklahoma. The displacement resulted in the death of several Ponca, including two children of the Ponca chief, Standing Bear. Based on a promise that Standing Bear made to his dying son to carry him back to their homeland, the Poncas journeyed north again, only to be stopped by the U.S. Army just a few miles short of their destination.
Against this historical backdrop, Justin longs for his son to abandon the spiritual tradition of his lineage, even as he realizes that the boy’s visions—of feathers and blood, of coyotes taunting from the wild—seem to be the only things that make sense to him. Standing Bear himself appears to Jason, his own young son dying in his arms; feathers drift slowly from above, a bit of minimalist stage magic. (“I want our son to have real dreams,” Justin sings to his wife, Delores. “Not dreams of feathers falling from the sky.”)
Minimalism is a hallmark of Peter Harrison’s sparely realized sets for Wakonda’s Dream, whether depicting the Labelles’ kitchen or the treacherous journey of the Poncas. A few piles of tires stand in for domestic detritus, yard refuse, and even the rocks of the countryside. Meanwhile, in the shadows at the back of the stage, a near-silent chorus of actors sits wearing the traditional dress of the Poncas; with their very stillness, they give the opera a strange blend of foreboding and comfort, of mysticism and stark reality. At times—as when Standing Bear holds his dead son in his arms—the chorus stands to express their grief through keening and mournful movement. In one of the opera’s most profound images, the chorus members hold thin branches above their heads and sway, and we see how the spirits of the Labelle family’s ancestors live on in the constant agitation of nature, interweaving past and present.
Komunyakaa, who won the 1995 Pulitzer for his collection Neon Vernacular, previously composed the libretto for Slip Knot, another opera with a basis in tragic fact—it’s the story of a slave who was executed after being falsely accused of raping a white woman. In Wakonda’s Dream, the mix of ferocity and tenderness in the portrait of an American Indian family recalls some of the Southern families that Komunyakaa (who was raised in rural Louisiana) depicts in his poetry.
In its second act, Wakonda’s Dream offers a glimpse of Jason as a young man—in love and still visited by Standing Bear—and draws no hopeful conclusions. In an effort to rid his lineage of demons, Jason takes on the pelt of a coyote, posing as the trickster who has long provoked his father. But in this tragic tale, a father’s sorrow resonates and repeats itself through many generations, and visions only lead to the downfall of the visionary.
Timothy Schaffert is the author of three novels, most recently Devils in the Sugar Shop. His second novel was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection in 2006. He is a contributing editor for Prairie Schooner and the director and founder of the (downtown) Omaha lit fest.