“Between Two Knees” shines a new light on American history

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Shyla Lefner and Shaun Taylor-Corbett behind Justin Gauthier on stage wearing space suits and an American Indian costume
Shyla Lefner (L) and Shaun Taylor-Corbett (R) behind Justin Gauthier in BETWEEN TWO KNEES by THE 1491's Directed by Eric Ting at McCarter Theatre. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The story spans the period between the 1890 massacre of some 300 people and 1973

The cast on stage performing
The company of BETWEEN TWO KNEES by The 1491’s directed by Eric Ting. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The relating of history depends on the point of view of the teller. “History is written by the victors,” as one maxim puts it, which means that American history has mostly been told by descendants of the European settlers who colonized and settled the Americas, especially North America, especially the United States. As an often humorous yet deadly serious corrective, the 1491s — a sketch comedy troupe comprised of Indigenous people from many tribes — has created Between Two Knees, a vaudeville piece. Now being shown by the McCarter Theatre Center. It is a must-see that casts a sobering light on the systemic mistreatment of members of the First Nations.

The story arc of Between Two Knees spans the period between the 1890 massacre of some 300 people, mostly women, and children, by the US Army at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to the 1973 occupation protest by the American Indian Movement (AIM) held at Wounded Knee.

Larry (Justin Gauthier), our guide through the story, tells the tale of Isaiah Wolf (Derek Garza), rescued from the massacre as a baby only to spend his life in a religious orphanage designed to strip its children of their Native identities. There he meets Irma (Shyla Lefner), and together, they escape the orphanage, settling down in Wounded Knee. Their son William (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) enlists in World War II, fathering a son, Eddie (Garza), who is raised by William’s parents (Wotko Long and Jennifer Bobiwash) and is sent to the Vietnam War. Isaiah, Irma, Eddie, and Irene (Lefner), Eddie’s long-absent mother, find themselves in the middle of the AIM occupation at Wounded Knee, leading to a surprising climax.

Derek Garza, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, and Shyla Lefner dressed in 50s era clothing
Derek Garza, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, and Shyla Lefner in BETWEEN TWO KNEES by The 1491s, directed by Eric Ting. Photo © T. Charles Erickson

The 1491s take their name from the year before Columbus’ explorations heralded the start of the European conquest of the Americas — “Maybe the last good year,” as a program insert states. The writing and performance skills of this five-man troupe — Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan RedCorn, and Bobby Wilson — have been seen most recently on the acclaimed FX-Hulu series Reservation Dogs (for which they have been creators, writers, actors, directors, and producers), and they have been highly praised for their work. 

Director Eric Ting has given the ensemble cast free reign to explore both the comedic and dramatic elements of the play. Cast members Rachel Crowl and James Ryen, as well as the aforementioned Gauthier, Garza, Lefner, Taylor-Corbett, Long, and Bobiwash, shine in a multitude of roles throughout the course of the show.

Scenic Designer Regina Garcia has created an old-timey proscenium set, adorned with stereotypical portrayals of Native people from advertising and sports and lit by designer Elizabeth Harper, with ample space for Shawn Duan’s show-enhancing projections. Costume Designer Lux Haac has let her imagination run wild in her designs, ranging from the prosaic to sci-fi fantastic.

Like most vaudeville pieces and sketch comedy shows, Between Two Knees’ scenes vary in quality, ranging from pointed, mordant satire to gimmicky slapstick. Yet as a program note suggests, Between Two Knees is still a work in progress, having made its debut at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019. What is on display at the McCarter Theatre Center shows promise for future iterations of the work while being fully entertaining now. I encourage those bold enough to view their history through different eyes and those who relish the use of comedy as an act of resistance to make their way to Princeton to see Between Two Knees before its all-too-brief run ends. 

Between Two Knees is presented by McCarter Theatre Center at the Matthews Theatre in Princeton through February 12, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 609-258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.