Awakening to The Tempest on Oguta Island

It’s tragic how one can read a story dozens of times and still miss who the hero is, who the villain is. Or that these personas can be one in the same. For a very long time now, I’ve wanted to mount a production of Shakespeare’s Tempest. I wanted to tell the story of the wronged man orchestrating his own justice against those who have oppressed him. A story of the healing forces of the wilderness. A story of the usurped besting his usurper.

Damn, did I miss the point. Because there are bigger, more necessary stories within this play that need to be told, and they were staring me in the face the whole time. I was blind to them. I hope not willfully blind, but blind all the same. This is a symptom of my white privilege. The trickiness of white privilege is just how hard it can be to see when it resides in a pervasive environment, a totality of whiteness. Like trying to spot a moth in a snowstorm.

Performing as Master Prosper (aka Prospero) in Nnamdi Kanaga’s film adaptation of the play, Oguta Island, rewritten as an examination of British colonialism in his home country of Nigeria, I struggled with speaking the lines, berating my slave Onyeka (Caliban) with racist contempt and derision. Knowing that the actor playing opposite me was also the playwright and co-director – that he had asked me to speak these words – didn’t make it any easier to spew this venom at him. And it was clearly much harder for him: He shed tears at every rehearsal and during the filming.

When I first read the script, I thought Kanaga had pushed the racism further than the original, twisting a relatively benign or even comical relationship (it is billed as a comedy after all) into something more sinister to make his point. But then I went back to the original. It’s all there. Prospero is horribly vehement in his white supremacist bile. He sounds as bad any KKK-member, neo-Nazi or rabid Trumpaholic. How did I miss it?

I think what watered down Prospero’s racism for me, is that we are told that Caliban is not human, rather he’s some half-fish creature born of the union of the Devil and a witch. And even more, Prospero treated him better than he deserved until Caliban tried to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. But in speaking his words to another human being, to a Black man standing face-to-face with me, I had a revelation: when it comes to Caliban’s inhumanity, we only have Prospero’s word for it. Who’s to say that Prospero’s definition of Caliban as half-fish is any different than the racist colonizer or slave-holder’s definition of the African as half-monkey? Or as the Native American as “savage” for that matter? Was Sycorax an evil witch, as Prospero claims, or merely a practitioner of a religion other than Christianity? In this light, one may begin to wonder: did Caliban assault Miranda, or was it another example of Emmett Till, a mere accusation of a black man by a white woman is grounds for murder? We don’t have easy answers to these questions, and that is exactly the mark of great art – it asks difficult questions without simplistic answers.

But the point is, in 30 years of reading this play, I had never asked these questions. I accepted Prospero’s word at face value. I accepted that he was the rightful ruler of the island, I accepted that Caliban was a monster, that his mother was a witch. My white privilege blinded me to the white privilege that encompasses this entire play. Having to curse a fellow human as less-than-human, while watching tears stream down his face, awakened me to a whole new understanding of this play.

And it wasn’t until a few days after we finished filming, that this truth come crashing down on me like a tempest: Very likely, no Black or Indigenous person has ever read or watched this play without seeing the truth of it right away.

Visit Montana InSite Theatre on September 18, to view a free screening of the film, Oguta Island, by Nnamdi Kanaga, directed by Kanaga, Jennings Barmore and Gretchen E. Minton.

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Notes on This Year’s Birthday Poem

Every April 14th, I mark the completion of another trip around the sun by sitting somewhere, quietly and alone – before the birthday celebrations begin, before social convention requires my attention – and make note of where I am. I watch and listen to that small moment of my life, and write it down.

I’ve been doing this for over a dozen years, and hope to continue the practice as long as I can hold a pen. Past birthday poems found me walking the broken sidewalks of Saginaw, Michigan, or watching elk from a bluff in Yellowstone National Park, or splitting logs in the woodshed at the Grizfork, or soaking in a tub listening to Beethoven’s 3rd, or watching swans at the lagoon, or noting the toxic passing of yet another coal train from the back patio at Glenn’s Bar.

This April is certainly one that will stand out. Our instinct in times of crisis is to come together. To gather our community and find strength in unity. This crisis that asks us to keep apart has been as counter-instinctive as it’s been fraught with the misinformation and deceit of the Covidiot-45 cult members. We are facing two crises, the pandemic and the self-imposed ignorance of those who’ve succumbed to the fear- and hate-mongering machines of myopia.

My bookstore, Elk River Books, has been closed for maybe months, though the ability to measure time has become nebulous at best. Has it been weeks or years? I’ve barely seen anyone outside of my immediate family and have gotten into the habit of donning a mask the same way I toss on a hat to head outside. I give neighbors a wide berth on the sidewalk when passing.

I’ve spent a lot of hours looking out the same window watching the bare trees shed skins of snow, darken with rain, and begin to glow with new buds. I wouldn’t have noticed the arrival of my birthday if my wife hadn’t reminded me.

All of this self-isolation and the silence of our downtown, the uncertainty and trepidation, the news trickling in of who may be sick, who has died – all of this was with me this year when I parked my cousin Doug Peacock’s battered old pickup at a boat launch on the Yellowstone River, cracked open a Tecate and found this year’s poem:

Birthday Poem 2020

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Birthday Poem 2020

The graffiti under the bridge
is the only color
on this sepia-tone day

The snow covered-teeth
of Sheep Mountain’s
wide grin, like a handsaw

lost from the tool shed
left out over the winter
in the frozen corpse of grass

We’ve been practicing social distancing
for generations – maybe the future
will come up with a better idea

We’ve got a ways to go
before the Yellowstone hits
high water mark on the pylons

Add a few rocks
to flowing water &
suddenly there is music

Add a murmuration of blackbirds
to an otherwise gray sky
& there’s reason to keep breathing

Some small white thing,
too early for cottonwood seed,
floats down from somewhere

merges with the water – disappears
No one will believe it was ever here
at all, & why should they?

A thousand blades
of this frost-edged wind
drive me back to the truck &

the river’s music, replaced
by the thrum & rumble of cars
battering across the 89 Bridge

I’m about to start the engine
when six crosses cut the sky –
Sandhill Cranes! a cosmic Yes!

Something moves, below & above
Feel it?
In times like this we come to rivers

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