Rhiana Yazzie has been entertaining people with her creative writing since the third grade—just ask her mother.
“My mom tells me that my teacher said the whole class would always look forward to the story that I had written,” said Yazzie (Navajo). “It was sort of like, oh yeah, I have been writing stories for a very long time.”
So when it came to choosing a profession while attending the University of New Mexico, Yazzie already had a good idea of what she wanted to do.
“I just gravitated toward writing,” Yazzie, 31, said. “I had a playwriting professor who was just the most encouraging person and he really showed me the beauty of a play and what can happen through that experience of sitting in a theater and listening to a story.”
It was then that Yazzie decided that she wanted to write plays for a living. After graduating from UNM with a bachelor’s of arts degree in theater and dramatic writing, she went on to the University of Southern California where she earned a master’s in professional writing.
Since graduating in 2002, Yazzie has been developing her talents as a playwright across various genres, crafting short films and one-act and full-length stage plays. In 2005, Yazzie won a playwright contest and was invited to attend the National Audio Theater Festival’s Audio Theater Workshop. The annual festivals, produced in association with NAPT’s Native Radio Theater, give people interested in audio theater a chance to work with experts in the field. It was at this festival that she got to see first hand the development of this art and work on fine-tuning her own plays.
Yazzie said she likes working in radio theater because the stories are conveyed entirely through the ear, using extensive use of voices and background noises. This gives writers the freedom to create situations in their plays that are far fetched and unrealistic, which fits well with Yazzie’s style of writing. In addition to the traditional venue, some radio theater productions are turned into podcasts and can be heard anytime after being downloaded off the Internet.
“Radio theater to regular stage theater is sort of like animation is to film, because you can literally fill the Grand Canyon with whipped cream,” Yazzie said, referring to the freedom radio theater gives to playwrights. “You can do so much.”
Rhiana Yazzie, Thirza DeFoe and John Gregg. Photo Credit: Janine MarrYazzie has now seen between 15 and 20 of her scripts for plays produced in some way. Her work now spreads over a variety of genres, including both stage and radio. And others are recognizing her talent. Her script for the second season of Native Radio Theater, The Best Place to Grow Pumpkins, won an honorable mention for Best Radio at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto, one of the largest media festivals for indigenous people in North America. In The Best Place to Grow Pumpkins, one of the characters fights the onset of diabetes and questions modern medicine. Yazzie has also written about other prominent issues in Native communities, such as abuse of woman and elders, but one common theme in all her work is that it’s all about Native culture.
“That’s not just a political statement. It’s because I am a Native person and I don’t know how other people are,” Yazzie said with a chuckle.
Political or not, Yazzie says it is important for Native people to see plays about their culture that are written by other Native Americans.
“When you’re a Native person you’ve got this sort of false mirror about your culture and so when you actually see something or a play or a piece of artwork or a film that is actually talking about your real experience as a fully rounded human, as a Native person, it has a really profound affect on you,” Yazzie said.
Although Yazzie has had success relating to her Native American audience, she said it is sometimes difficult for Native playwrights to get their work into the mainstream. She said some producers have ignored her work solely because it is Native themed. Although this is one of her biggest challenges as a playwright, she maintains a positive outlook.
“It’s just a matter of continuously not being discouraged and keep going on,” Yazzie said.
As for her new works, she is currently in production on her newest play during the third season of Native Radio Theater. The show, Really Real News from Native America, co-produced by Clara NiiSka (Ojibwe), is a parody on television news in Indian Country and will be released with the entire third season to public and tribal radio stations across the nation and on the AIROS Native Network in November.
As for other opportunities, she says she will embrace anything new that may come her way. Recently, she has been working on a short film, although she said she intends to stick mostly to writing.
“I’m just constantly reaching out and branching out,” Yazzie said. “Every new thing that I have learned it just adds to the ability to be creative and so it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time.”
by Zach Oliva