For Alison Bridget Chambers, real life is imitating art – sometimes uncomfortably so – as she stars in “War Paint,” an original play by Bret Jones that is being given its world premiere at the Wichita Center for the Arts this week.
Chambers, a recent Wichita transplant who grew up mostly around New York City, plays a college student who explores the American Indian heritage in her family because of an assignment from her non-Indian professor.
“My character, Christina, is Native American by heritage but not by culture, so the assignment in her anthropology class proves to be very difficult. It’s a coming-of-age tale as she discovers who she is and what makes her her,” says Chambers, who received her music theater degree from Shenandoah University Conservatory in Virginia and her master’s from the New School of Drama in New York City.
“That hits a little close to home because my grandfather was Cherokee, but disappeared when my father was a little boy, so he never grew up knowing about his heritage. I’m Native American like Olive Garden is Italian. I always knew I was Native American, but I didn’t really know what that meant. This is the first time I’ve played a role like this,” says Chambers, who has done everything from Amanda in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” to Miranda in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to Velma in “Chicago.”
“The experience of being in this play is both uncomfortable and enlightening. It’s been a process of discovery. I sometimes feel conflicted – like Christina. It’s changing me because you don’t know what you might find out about yourself. It makes you feel vulnerable, and that can be scary,” she says.
“The message of the show? There are several, but what speaks to me is to embrace who you are and accept yourself, no matter what that might mean. You can’t determine who your parents are, but you can determine who you become.”
Also in the cast are Damian Padilla, Delno Ebie, Sean Gestl, Lacey Youngbear and Stacy Chestnut, several of whom also have American Indian heritage. Chambers’ real-life husband, Lewis D. Mize, plays Christina’s professor, who launches her journey with his provocative assignment.
The play is by Bret Jones, program director of theater at Wichita State University for six years, who has written and produced more than 20 theatrical pieces since the 1990s. An Oklahoma native who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe, Jones often draws from real-life experiences, although he says none are specifically autobiographical.
“I’m a Creek, but I didn’t grow up with much of the culture in my home. Most people are surprised when they hear about my heritage because they say I don’t look it. That’s a running gag in Indian country because you don’t know whether to take it as a compliment or as racist,” Jones says.
For a number of years, Jones lived in Ada, Okla., and taught summer theater in the Chickasaw Nation during vacations from teaching theater at East Central University. His first plays were about historical, early 20th century Indian experiences, but then he became intrigued by stories from family and friends about today’s 21st century experiences.
“I began listening as a playwright to what was happening in Indian country, things that weren’t talked about in the mainstream media,” Jones says. “I discovered a lot of young people, like me, that knew just a bit of their heritage or language and were searching, looking to that culture as a source of identity and community. It gave me a lot to mull over as a writer. It made for good storytelling.”
Jones says that there is a generational difference in the approach to American Indian heritage. Older folks didn’t question, and certainly didn’t change, traditions. Younger people, he says, aren’t afraid of putting their own spin on things, making their culture a living, breathing, growing, changing thing.
“It’s an interesting disparity as younger generations add new things. For example, traditional dances are getting flashier and flashier through new influences. It’s an evolving, living culture. Ultimately, it’s how people identify themselves,” Jones says.
Jones thinks much of the change may be a result of waning religious influences.
“As this country becomes less religious, more people are searching for identity. Some people form quiddich clubs like in ‘Harry Potter’ and are very serious about it. Others are extreme sports fans who identify with a particular team, even if they didn’t go to school there. Others try to find their ethnicity. In every case, it gives them a feeling of identity, of belonging, of self-worth,” Jones says.
“That’s a good thing if you do it to learn and grow,” he says. “But if you do it for pride or to set yourself apart, it’s not.”