The Trojan Women: Interview with Director Sarah B. Denison

The Trojan Women
American Indian Artists Inc. has just announced the presentation of their new play “The Trojan Women: A Native American Adaptation.”

American Indian Artists Inc. has just announced the presentation of their new play “The Trojan Women: A Native American Adaptation.” The show opened on May 6.

“The Trojan Women: A Native American Adaptation” is a retelling of the classic Greek play “The Trojan Women” by Euripides. It follows the fates of the women of Troy after a devastating battle. This version tells the tale through a Native American lens. Exploring themes of colonization and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), it is the story of not only the destruction caused by war, but also of the hope, strength, and survival of Native American matriarchal society. Using Native iconography, traditional Native music and design aesthetics and elements of historical realism of the director’s Native nation, this bold new interpretation draws upon classical Greek theater as an indigenous art form.

Recently, director Sarah B. Denison discussed the show and her career via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for writing and what was it about plays and the theater that most interested you?

The Trojan WomenSarah B. Denison (SBD): I don’t know that I truly consider myself a writer or can take any credit at all for writing this script. I’m primarily an actor, so all of my adaptations for this script, and the way I directed, was really informed by how I work as an actor – what acting moments of the story really needed to remain, and what could be embellished a bit or removed. I have been writing since I was young, mostly very cheesy and embarrassing poetry in my adolescent years (anyone who snuck a look at my diary can confirm this), and I took some creative writing courses in college, but didn’t pursue it any further. Occasionally I write sketch comedy, but I don’t consider myself very brilliant at it by any means. I’m more of a “dabbler” than anything. For this script, the adaptation of “The Trojan Women”, the writing was really just cuts, edits, and small additions to an already wonderfully crafted script. In theatre, I think you have to be ready to step into any aspect of the process and just go with your gut, follow your heart. The wonderful thing about theatre is how so many people come together to create a piece of art – and how each person brings a different perspective and expertise to what they are doing. I love the collaborative nature of theatre and getting work in it in all aspects – on stage or “behind the scenes.”  It is all magical to me.

MM: How did you find out about the story of the Trojan Women and why did you decide to approach it from a Native American narrative?

The Trojan WomenSBD: This is also something that I can’t take credit for. Diane Fraher (who runs American Indian Artists Inc. and is producing THE TROJAN WOMEN) is really the mastermind behind it all. I don’t know that I would’ve ever had interest, or confidence enough, to approach this script in this way if not for her and John Scott Richardson reaching out and asking me to do it. I was very hesitant to step into the task of adapting and directing a piece of classical theatre, and hadn’t read the script in years, but once I re-read the script from a Native perspective, I had such a strong emotional reaction to it, that I knew I had to do it. I’m just thankful that Diane, and everyone at Amerinda, including the actors, have trusted me and gone along on this journey with me.

MM: How much research did you do into the original story?

SBD: It was very important to me to have a full understanding of the original story and all of the references throughout the script. I had read The Illiad many years ago (and loved it), so I was pretty familiar with most of the characters, and the story itself is very famous, so research was not hard to come by. The difficult part was doing the research on my own Tribal history and finding ways to intertwine the stories in ways that honored the original, while respectfully adapting it to fit a Native perspective. I spent the bulk of my time really digging into Spokane (Tribal) history through resources shared with me by Warren Seyler, one of our Tribe’s historians. He has some really amazing and informative videos and his YouTube channel, and he took time out to connect with me and give me guidance, which I am so grateful for. Some of the history I knew, or had some familiarity with, but his well of knowledge was incredibly helpful. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that most of our history does not exist in history books, or even on the internet. The guidance of a tribal historian was invaluable to this script.

MM: You focus on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, what is it about this subject that you most want to raise awareness about?

The Trojan WomenSBD: I think, in this context of the play, it really is demonstrative that Indigenous women have been disappearing since the beginning of colonialism. It is something that has been happening since colonizers arrived on our land, and it is still happening today. From the moment our lands were invaded, Indigenous people, and Indigenous women, have been targets of genocide and abuse. It is still happening today. With the recent uprising of the MMIW Movement, I believe people have become more aware of the issues Indigenous women and communities face, which is a step in the right direction, but what action is being taken by those outside the Indigenous community? Violence against women is a horrifying problem in our country, and in our world, but the alarmingly high rate at which it affects Indigenous women compared to others is something that everyone should be aware of. I understand that for some, it is hard to put into context without a personal connection to it. I hope that those who see this show feel a personal connection with the characters, and therefore, a personal connection and responsibility to help us continue to fight for the safety of Indigenous women everywhere.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the play and why?

SBD: It is hard to pick a favorite part, honestly. Each scene has its own dynamics and the actors all bring so much to their characters and their scenes. There are some truly gut-retching moments in this play, but there is also a surprising amount of strength and determination. I love watching Hecuba’s (Hi-ita’s) journey through the play and the purpose this character serves in each scene. This is a woman who has been through the worst of all things possible, and still finds herself getting up and fighting. Whether that be for one of her children, or for the justice she seeks. All of the actors are really bringing everything they have.

The Trojan WomenMM: What have your past plays been about?

SBD: Oh boy, I have written some really terrible, and some slightly amusing, sketch comedy. That is really all I feel I can claim as my own.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?

SBD: I’m primarily an actor, so I have some “irons in the fire” there as they say, but as far as writing goes, I’m really interested in writing more about my experiences growing up on the Spokane Reservation. I think people are genuinely curious about what it is like, and I love the lead that shows like “Reservations Dogs” are taking in portraying life as it is and not some colonized, stereotypical, historical version of Native Americans. Our stories are current and important. I love working with Indigenous stories and Indigenous artists. It gives me a great deal of fulfillment walking into a room where I know people just “get it”, no explanation needed. Plus Natives are funny as hell. Yes, we have some traumatic stories that deserve to be told, but I have never met a Native person who didn’t have a great sense of humor. We are multi-faceted. I’d like to help create some more of the well-rounded Native characters we are finally getting to see in the mainstream. Native comedy is where my heart is headed.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

The Trojan WomenSBD: The talent and dedication of this cast has been incredible to be a part of and I can’t wait for everyone to come out and see this show. Having the opportunity to work in NYC with Indigenous artists from all over the country is such a blessing and a privilege. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done, and the work that Amerinda does. I’m so happy to have been invited to be a part of it, and to have been trusted with a leadership role in this production. It has been an amazing experience.

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THE TROJAN WOMEN: A NATIVE AMERICAN ADAPTATION runs through May 15 at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue at 10th Street). For tickets and information, visit