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Theatre department premiering reimagined ‘Peter Pan’ centered on Indigenous identity

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Marion Jacobs, center, a Squamish actor, plays Wendy, who in “The Neverland” is a Mohegan girl. Also shown are Ben Mathew as John, Madelyn Childress as Mary 1/Karilagan, Jailene Torres as Mary 2/Andrea, Kim Fernandez as Mary 3/Chesa and, left, Emily Albert-Stauning as Tink. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

By Jodi Heckel

A modern-day adaptation of “Peter Pan” imagines Neverland as a refuge for marginalized people who are told there is no place for them in the world.

The Neverland,” by playwright Madeline Sayet, takes the original escapist journey told from a colonial viewpoint and makes it a work of Indigenous futurism about building a world where all people and cultures are valued.

Photo of Madeline Sayet with her head back, laughing.
Playwright Madeline Sayet is the guest director and an artist-in-residence in the theatre department. Photo by Bret Hartman

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign theatre department commissioned Sayet to write the play and hosted a workshop for the production. Performances will be April 7-9 and April 13-16 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Sayet is a resident guest artist and guest director with the theatre department during the production of “The Neverland.” She is the executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program and a citizen of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut. She often reimagines classic stories in her work.

“I love coming-of-age stories, magical realism and big, transformative stories that take you on adventures. I would love to direct a play about flying children, yet ‘Peter Pan’ is horribly racist when it comes to Native people. I wanted to do it as a positive experience that centers Indigenous identity and reimagines the world in new, positive ways,” Sayet said.

Photo of an actor onstage with black paint on his face and fingers and wearing black clothing.
Kenny Ramos, a Kumeyaay actor, plays Pan, who is a Native American character in “The Neverland.” Photo by Darrell Hoemann

While not the “Peter Pan” story, “The Neverland” retains familiar characters from the classic, including fairies and pirates.

“I took the parts of the story I feel passionate about and used them to build a new adventure,” Sayet said.

The character Wendy in Sayet’s story is Mohegan. She attends a strict religious school, influenced by the residential school systems in the U.S. and Canada that were designed to indoctrinate Native children to non-Native society. Her teacher has given her an English name and told her that her culture is gone.

Photo of three young women in a classroom, two of them wearing school uniforms and the third in a t-shirt that says
Kim Fernandez as Mary 3/Chesa, Marion Jacobs as Wendy and Jailene Torres as Mary 2/Andrea. Their characters attend a strict religious school that is suppressing multiple kinds of identities. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

In Sayet’s story, the school is suppressing multiple kinds of identities, including Native, homosexual and transgender. She imagines Neverland as a refuge for everything told it can’t exist anymore.

The play begins and ends with songs, the first asking who remembers where their stories came from and the final song declaring, “It’s time to listen to voices we were told to forget.”

Theatre students are designing, performing and managing the play. Sayet said it is important to her that the students learn the history of where they live, including that there are no federally recognized Native tribes in Illinois because they were forced off their land.

Photo of an actor wearing pirate clothes and standing before a structure with a ship’s wheel, with several other actors, one of whom is carrying a pirate flag.
Gabrielle DeMarco plays Hook. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

They also should see Native Americans as part of the world today, not just existing in the past, she said. Marion Jacobs, the actor playing Wendy, is Squamish; Kenny Ramos, who plays Pan, is Kumeyaay; and composer Ed Littlefield is Tlingit. In theatrical productions of “Peter Pan,” the Native characters were never portrayed by Native American actors onstage, but by white actors in redface, Sayet said.

“All people have seen is caricatures,” she said.

She also wants to expose students to different ways of working besides the Eurocentric theater model, she said.

“Native theater operates in a more decentered model where lots of people are contributing their voices. It’s everyone’s story. It’s about community rather than one person, and how things affect the entire world instead of one person,” Sayet said. “I’m hoping students also are learning about themselves and their voices, and who they want to be in the world.”

Sayet said audience members who come to “The Neverland” should know they are not seeing the original “Peter Pan” story, but “they will go on an adventure and open their minds to new things. There’s magic, songs and flying. Ultimately, it’s about celebrating everyone’s identity and that everyone has value.”

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