Arigon Starr and Dirk Maggs
Arigon Starr and Dirk Maggs
She’s a little bit country. He’s a little bit rock.
She is Arigon Starr, the energetic performer of a radio production called “The Red Road.” Her one-woman radio play was recorded at NET in Lincoln, Neb. where - complete with an array of props, accents and her signature guitar – the enrolled member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma tackled the task of dispelling stereotypes of Native American people through the variety of colorful and comical characters that she portrays. And he is award-winning BBC director Dirk Maggs, who directs “The Red Road” and plays the drums.
The opportunity for Starr to combine her interests in singing and songwriting in “The Red Road” was sparked with an idea about truck drivers.
“Back in the day, I had written a song about a Native American truck driver because a friend had asked me, who is a big fan of all those truck driving songs, and said ‘how come there’s not one about an Indian,’” Starr recalled of how her play that came to be. “And I thought, ‘You’re right.’”
So she found a few Native truck drivers for background and began writing a song. She learned that in their travels these truck drivers would encounter some of the experiences that many Natives encounter.
“I think Native people will know this, because we look a certain way and this is how it all kind of happens, people kind of look at you funny. When they find out you’re Indian they usually ask do you know so and so who might be another Indian from another tribe,” she joked. “And the second question is my ancestor, my great-great so-and-so was Cherokee. And I thought ‘what is this truck driver’s life all about? What kind of things would he go through?’ So I put that into a song called ‘The Red Road.’”
At the time, acting was not on her radar, Starr said. Eventually, after working with Native Voices at the Autry, a Los Angeles-based organization whose mission is to promote the production of Native American-written plays, Starr was asked by two of her mentors in the program, Randy Reinholz and Jean Bruce Scott, to write a play and its corresponding songs, to act and sing.
“One person shows are usually monologues,” she said. “You know it’s like okay I’m gonna stand in the corner, in this light and be this character and not interact with the other characters. ‘The Red Road’ was different because I’m different.”
“So it sounds like I’m a crazy person having a conversation with myself,” Starr said. “But that’s how I tell the story.”
When asked who she wanted to work with, she requested Maggs, who flew in from London and is probably most recently best known for his radio work on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Directing this production suited Maggs well because his favorite medium of storytelling is radio.
“It’s the most visual of all the media because it bypasses the optic nerve. It sneaks in through the side door, which is your ear and then it throws these wide screen images into the screen of your mind,” he said.
“We met ten years ago when I was in L.A. and it was really kind of like, meeting someone who completely out of cultural references, clicked,” Maggs said. “She was into things like Monty Python. And I worked in comedy at the BBC mainly in radio. And I was over with a guy called Brian May. Some guitar player from some band.”
“Yeah, Queen, anybody heard of them?” Starr joked. “We Will Rock You?”
“Some banjo amateur,” Maggs replied. And they share a sarcastic laugh about their mutual friend.
May knew Starr from previous work and put her in touch with Maggs for the production of her radio piece.
“Arigon’s very self-effacing about it and she sort of says it’s about this and it’s about that and it’s not deep or it’s not that. But I actually think it’s got a lot of really interesting things in it because you could get deep and serious but it isn’t. It’s funny.”
Starr credits her parents with her sense of humor. Her characters converge at the 1977 setting of the play, in a café in Oklahoma, from all over Indian Country. Each has their own story to tell in a comedic way. A few of the characters are activists, one is a Navajo fry cook, another is an avid bingo player from Wisconsin among others all meeting by chance on the heels of pivotal American Indian Movement events at Wounded Knee and Alcatraz.
“Arigon said ‘we’re still here. That was then and this is now,’” Maggs said. “Not to forget what’s happened and so on but we’re moving on. And there’s a whole bunch of us here doing stuff and we’re alive and we’re doing our cultural things.”
Starr added, “that’s something we want to do with the ‘Red Road.’ We want to give that to the whole world. Our culture is still alive.”
At a screening in Tulsa, Okla. many Native people said they saw members of their own families in the show’s characters. More surprising and reaffirming for Starr and Maggs was that non-Indians in the audience pointed out similarities between the characters and people that they know, despite the racial and cultural differences.
“We do celebrate where we came from. We listen to hip-hop. We go to baseball games. We do all that stuff. That’s become part of our world as well as everything else.”
By Nancy Kelsey