Comedy is the most powerful art form. The ability to make others laugh is an unmatched healing power that can transform even the most taboo subjects into a punchline. Between Two Knees, a new play by the 1491s playing at Yale Repertory Theatre, challenges the boundaries of comedic satire, guiding audience members to the thin border between guilt and amusement.
I was seated somewhere in the center of the shoulder-to-shoulder audience. The only open seat was to the left of me. It seemed to me that the theater was one-person short of being a full house and I remembered the last time I was here, pre-pandemic, I sat with someone I loved. The ghost of their love sat there in the seat next to me.
I looked around, searching for other Black people in the audience. I laid eyes on just one. Almost everyone else in the audience was white.
Members of the cast took space on the stage to welcome us and let everyone know that the play would be full of satirical humor centered on Native American traumas. We were given permission to laugh and then offered a pregame of jokes, foreshadowing later moments in the play when many would be drunk with laughter. I adore macabre humor and believe in the healing qualities of comedy. With noble intention, Between Two Knees attempts to redistribute the benefits of humor to Native American communities. However, there was something eerie and ironic about the fact that most of the audience was not Native American. Most of the people in the audience were living beneficiaries of the same injustices on topic: white people.
The cast seemed prepared for this as they sent a donation can around the theater. We were told the money would go toward Yale’s Native American Cultural Center. One by one, audience members dropped in dollars and passed the can along. When it finally got to me, the can was literally full of money. In my eyes though, the can was also full of white guilt–too small to fit anything more. In a predominantly white audience, even if someone felt ashamed for laughing, they might relieve themselves by donating. However, absolution cannot fit in a can, or even after a punchline. I contributed all the cash in my bag and passed the can over.
I was blown away by my own miseducation around the history of Native America. I was shocked and embarrassed at some of the things I didn’t already know. Individual massacres laid out for the audience to piece together like a horrible puzzle: the bigger picture detailed with strokes of jokes that boldly deconstructed the fourth wall, reinstating the reality of each topic for maximum impact. It was almost ironic.
After the show, I was given an opportunity to ask one of the actors, Shyla Lefner, some questions about Between Two Knees. I pointed out that the crowd was mostly white people, and asked what the cast does to decompress after shows. She responded, “For me, the element of doing this satire [Between Two Knees] — even though it usually is predominantly for a white audience — is cathartic in and of itself, knowing the story we are telling is for Natives first and foremost. We are having such joy on the stage with each other because laughter and humor is always good healing for us. It's physically a release that is working on many levels. We do want to reach the consciousness of a white audience that might be unaware of the history as well... educating is rewarding.”
I then asked what white people might do to repair the damage they have inflicted upon Native American communities. “Educate themselves,” said Lefner. “Read, watch and listen to Native-authored stories. Understand the land that they are living on was stolen and know the history behind the specific atrocities that pertain to the local areas where they live. It's all of our history.”
Between Two Knees offered me a sense of fellowship and solidarity with Native American communities. Eager to express that, I asked how non-Native American people of color could support Native communities. “By lifting up and highlighting [Native] stories, supporting organizations like IllumiNative, NDN Collective, Seeding Sovereignty, Center for World Indigenous Studies...supporting and understanding indigenous stories is the first step in the movement of re-indigenizing our spaces. I am a mixed ethnic woman with afro-indigenous / european heritage as well, and my personal involvement with the play has been a gateway into these characters, that we as people of color are absolutely in this together and can be that 'fire on the prairie' that creates a new vision for the future.”
Between Two Knees is a tale of generational Native American perseverance, devastation, and hope. With lots of innovative stage gimmicks and action packed effects I have never seen at the theater, the overall production left me amazed, curious, and optimistic. Even from the audience, it was clear how much cast members were impacted by the satire in their own production. With joy on their lips and pride in their eyes, the cast extracted the healing powers of comedy and infused it in their own creation.