Tonto, the Land O’ Lakes butter lady, and other pop culture images of American Indians are flashed onto the wall at the very beginning of writer/performer Darrell Dennis’ Tales of an Urban Indian, now at the Public Theater. Dennis then runs through a litany of misconceptions about contemporary Native peoples. “I can’t shape shift, I’ve never had a vision, never heard the owl call my name,” he intones. His solo show promises to offer up something less stereotypical. But while certain aspects of the script give us a different perspective on what he’s termed the “Urban Indian,” the show as a whole still resorts to the use of too many clichés.
Dennis inhabits the role of a young Indian man named Simon Douglas who grew up on “Coyote Lake Reservation Number Four,” briefly escaped to East Vancouver, returned to the Rez, and then once more makes it out to the city. Along the way, Simon describes childhood friendships and their endings, his experiences with racism, and his battle with alcoholism and drug addiction.
Simon is presented, flaws and all, but Dennis still manages to make him sympathetic enough for the audience to follow his journey. Unfortunately, just about every other character within the story is presented rather stereotypically, from Simon’s wisdom-spouting grandmother, to his potato chip-eating best friend Nick, to the plethora of white-skinned characters that the playwright/performer doesn’t even attempt to endow with any kind of depth.
There are moments in the show that are quite funny, and I particularly enjoyed Simon’s excuse to a white teacher about why he didn’t have his homework, which he delivers in an amusing parody of a stoic Indian. There are also moments that effectively convey the gravity of the tale, for example, Simon’s observation that despite a rather rocky descent into a netherworld of addiction that threatens to destroy his life, “only rehab smelled like failure.”
Sadly, Dennis tries too hard in other parts of the performance, particularly a misguided song and dance number that doesn’t quite land. He also tends to push too hard, talking at the audience rather than establishing a more natural rapport with them.
In terms of playwriting, the story seems overloaded with melodrama. And while press notes claim that the piece is “semi-autobiographical,” the fact that some of these things may have actually happened to the show’s author doesn’t excuse the fact that the way they’re presented here feels strained.