Interview: Madeline Sayet on the Origin of Her Solo Show, Where We Belong

As part of an ongoing tour, Sayet brings her new play to the Public Theater.

In 2015, Mohegan theater artist Madeline Sayet began her pursuit of a Ph.D. in Shakespeare in the United Kingdom. Little did she know that her experiences and inner conflict about her experience would inspire a solo play.

Where We Belong, which examines her journey through the lens of Native ancestors in the 1700s, was filmed and released in the summer of 2021 by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and has since began a national tour. Following stops at Baltimore Center Stage, Philadelphia Theatre Company, and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, it has arrived in New York City at the Public. Theatre for a run through November 27.

Over email, Sayet gave us an overview of her piece's history.

Madeline Sayet in Where We Belong at the Public Theater
Madeline Sayet in Where We Belong at the Public Theater
(© Joan Marcus)

What was the inspiration for Where We Belong?
In 2018, when I moved back to the United States after living in the UK for a few years, it was the first time that my feet didn't root quite right to the ground. Before that, every time I came home I could feel my roots reaching all the way down; it was evident in my body that this was the place of my ancestors. I had been flying from nation to nation to nation for work and I began thinking about my name in Mohegan, which means Blackbird, and what it means to become a bird.

That was the shift in perspective I was feeling. So I started writing to make sense out of what I was going through and the world around me. To grapple with questions like, "Does missing England as a Mohegan person make me a traitor?" And, "Is there a place as an Indigenous person in a globalized world where I get to belong?" And was there wisdom I could gather from my ancestors who had to go to the UK in the 1700s and were never able to come home? It wasn't originally supposed to be a play, it was a big stream of consciousness thought experiment. I had things I needed to work out for myself that felt very private.

Can you talk a little bit about what you learned about the play, and performing it, over the course of the tour you've been on?
It's changed so much from the first performance until now. It used to be very painful to perform. It would always make me sick, because I would essentially have to re-experience painful moments in my life. There was no distance between me and my own life at all and I really deeply questioned that a tour was a good idea.

The thing that kept me going was the notes I received from audience members. Almost every night, someone sends me a message, or leaves a note, sharing a story back with me. The fact that after hearing my story they feel moved enough to share a story from their own lives – that exchange has felt so powerful that it's really inspired me and kept me going. It made me feel like maybe I am actually shifting something in peoples' consciousness, whether it's opening up one audience member's way of seeing the world, or empowering someone to tell their own story.

As time has gone on, I have become able to separate the act of performing the play from my own life in a way in which I couldn't earlier on, and I've enjoyed spending more time inhabiting the other characters, particularly my ancestors. But the piece also changes a lot from venue to venue, location to location, because every venue and audience brings something different to it. It's always easier to perform when there are some Native peoples in the audience. Some theaters I've performed in have tons of laughter and joy, while other audiences are more serious. Doing it in a space as intimate as the LuEsther means I have nowhere to hide, so it's becoming a very raw version of the play to perform emotionally. And I'm curious to see how it continues to evolve here.

As a Mohegan theater artist, what does it mean to you to be telling this story in New York, where so many theaters have begun doing Land Acknowledgments but are still so woefully behind in terms of actual Native representation?
I came of age as a theater artist in New York. I remember when I was in college seeing redface onstage at the Public for the first time, and then in the years to follow, only seeing more redface from the large New York City theater institutions and never Native theater in those spaces. Native theater was always happening but never in large mainstream venues. The message the New York theater scene was sending at that time was clear: Nobody wanted to see us as human beings. Redface was the norm, just like it was in the 1800s, it wasn't changing. We were just to be used as a device in Non-Natives plays.

But New York is also where I found out that we, as Native people, had our own theater canon, genre, movement, etcetera. So, as someone who has a deep love of the downtown Native theater scene and began my career directing Native theater in this city, it feels like an immense honor to be able to be here, as a Northeastern Native person now, to be able to finally say yes, we do exist here. We have always existed and we're not going away. And if you know where to lookm there is Native theater happening all around you. And I hope this show is one step toward convincing theaters to let more Native artists tell their stories in these spaces.

As an artist and scholar, what is it like for you to balance the idea of Native culture and language, by and large, falling by the wayside in terms of the general population, while the culture and language of Shakespeare is still widely studied and embraced?
It is not an accident. It is a matter of law and policy. The only named author in the American Common Core is William Shakespeare, a writer not from here. Whereas, by comparison, there were long periods of history in which Native arts were made illegal. And Native children had their languages actively removed as a matter of governmental policy. I feel like the mistake is in pretending it's a matter of happenstance or preference. No, it's a matter of policy, and funding, and systemic structures.

The fact is that Native children were stolen from their homes, brought to schools where they were beaten for speaking their languages, and forced to learn English and Shakespeare. I think it's important we reckon with the fact that while Shakespeare is obviously a great writer, it is no accident that he is so prevalent now, but as a part of white supremacist policies that promote the idea that he is inherently good for everyone. Those policies need to be questioned, because there are other playwrights and poets, many Native ones, for that matter, who might inspire students just as powerfully in different ways. And that intensity of focus on one writer, from one culture and one time period, while pretending he is universal, is actually incredibly limiting.

What are you hoping audiences at the Public will take away from seeing Where We Belong?
I hope they leave willing to question the world around them, and grapple with the questions that come up in my journey in their own lives. Maybe they make discoveries that only they can make. And laugh a little. But most of all, I hope they realize that there are so many Native stories just waiting to be told, and they leave wanting to hear more of them.