Native actors provide own brand of humor in Menominee College plays

By Ken Luchterhand

When the actors in the productions of N.A.P.S. and Shinnob Jep took center stage, it wasn’t about the accolades they might receive.
It was more about connecting with the Native American culture and sharing a few laughs that they know best about.
Two plays, N.A.P.S. and Shinnob Jep, were performed on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the College of Menominee College in Keshena. A second performance was offered on Friday, Dec. 9, at the Norbert Hill Center in Oneida.
 One of the main actors in Shinnob Jep was Jamie Funmaker, a Ho-Chunk member who is attending classes at the college, who played Al Treebark, a role that resembles Alex Trebek on the show Jeopardy.
Jamie is a Natural Resources major who took the Theater production class as an elective.
“I had fun. I like the humor. There is no better situation than being teased, as natives like to do,” Jamie said.
Director Ryan Winn is faculty member at the College of Menominee Nation and instructor of the Theater Production course. The plays are part of the curriculum of that course.
“Every fall we produce a professionally written show,” Winn said. “In the spring we write a new play and we produce it the last week of July.  The two plays we're currently producing have never been produced together before.”
The plays offers a way to link with the students, like they understand and can identify with them.
“The students connected well with the plays.  The first play's questioning ‘ghost hunting’ as a form of entertainment hit home with many people who believe that those who have passed on should be allowed to rest,” he said. “The second play's use of humor engaged our students as well, but I think the message of accepting one another and working well together resonated beyond the rapid-fire jokes.” 
The first performance, called N.A.P.S., which stands for Native American Paranormal Society, is about investigators who check out reports of spiritual activity, which occurs mostly around the local casino.
The Native American Paranormal Society play is a view into the present paranormal craze.  Ghosts and spirits have always existed in literature and spirituality is a strong theme in some Native American literature as well. 
The author of the play, William S. Yellow Robe Jr., takes a look at the departed, who are disturbed by the arrogance of the living.  Set in an abandoned bingo hall of a casino, the current residents are those who have lost their lives within the building.
During the play, two ghosts hover around the stage, unseen to the actors doing the investigation. But mostly, the actors discuss odd occurrences that have happened around the premises, indications of paranormal activity.
“For N.A.P.S., my favorite part was about the tribe discontinuing use of the bingo hall after the couple passed. The main actor said, ‘That's the hardest part to believe. That our tribe give this place to them,’” Winn said.
In the play Shinnob Jep, short for Anishinabe Jeopardy, game show host Al Treebark conducts the game with contestants Franklin Lake, Tradish Ikwe and John Johnson Jr.
Question categories include “Ricing,” “Powwow,” “Tribal Councils,” “Higher Education,” “Casino Gaming,” “Race Relations,” “U.S. History,” “Trick or Treaties,” “Trick of Treatment,” “Body Language,” “Sugar Bush,” and “Rez Cars.”
Each of the questions and answers offered a slice of Native American humor. For instance, in the category “Rez Cars,” the question is “Will a Ford wheel fit on a Chevy?” The answer is “Yes, if you have a big enough hammer.”
Under the category “Casino Gaming,” a question was “Should you hate someone who hit the jackpot on a slot machine you just left?” The answer is “Yes, but only for a little while.”
Throughout both plays, the performances would be halted for a short time to offer a commercial of a product that would hit the funny bone, such as “War Pony Tours” and “Boogid’s Wild Rice Tools.”
Toward the end of the play, the final round was played, where each contestant wrote down the answer on a card and the amount wagered. The contestants shared their answers with each other while writing and, in the end, the game ended in a three-way tie.
“My favorite part is, after the game ends in a three way tie due to them helping each other solve the final question, they said, ‘When we work together, everybody wins,’" Winn said. 
The course, and the plays, places the students in front of audiences, which may not seen natural to them, but in the end it boosts their self-esteem, Jamie said.
“It takes you out of your comfort zone – different than a traditional classroom setting. We had to memorize lines which makes up our homework grade for our final grade,” she said. “The production uses humor to connect Native Americans together, regardless of their backgrounds and tribes.”
Jamie said she has no acting experience and was shocked to be given the scripts to the two plays on the first day of class.
“He said, ‘By the way, these are the two plays we’re putting on. I’m pretty sure he knew on the first day what parts he wanted people to portray.”
She is glad she took the class, which made her grow in confidence.
“This class has been fun and quite the learning experience, and I definitely recommend this class to anyone with a sense of adventure,” she said.
Another actor, Sabrina Hemken, from the Menominee tribe, was raised off the reservation, came to the college to receive an education but also to connect with her Native American heritage. She played the role of John Johnson Jr., a contestant on Shinnob Jep.
Sabrina is pursuing a double major in Public Administration and Digital Media, and it was her second time for acting in the plays, having been part of the class last year, but volunteering to fill a role this year.
“It’s entertainment and it gives students experience in public speaking – so0mething they otherwise shy away from. Humor is part of our native culture. We use humor and then we throw a moral in to send a message.”
The plays are important aspect in their lives, a time when art programs are being cut from public schools because of financial constraints.
“I never thought I would be in a play. I feel fortunate to be able to do so,” Sabrina said.
Audience members chuckled through both plays.
“The reaction has been wonderful,” Winn said. “For most of my students, this is the first production they've been involved with and it's been a glowing success.  We're humbled by all of the praise and thrilled that we're able to share our art with the community.” 
Although the actors and audience gave indications of approval with laughter and a thunderous applause at the end, more benefits will be realized in years ahead. 
“Honestly, for me, the best aspect is seeing the look of wonder on the faces of all of the future actors in the audience,” Winn said. “I'm most excited about the fact that CMN's current students are inspiring its future students simply by succeeding on the stage.  I love it when someone comes up to me after a show and says that in a few years they'll be acting in one of our shows.”