One woman play called "Unci" brings cultural connection to audience
Dakota Digest - 09/18/2009
By Jim Kent
In the Lakota culture, grandmothers are more than respected elders; they're the backbone of the family. They teach their grandchildren about the old ways, they help pass on traditions, language and culture and they keep their families together. But mostly, they offer love. A play about a Lakota grandmother is on tour in western South Dakota. In this play called “Unci”, is as much about the Lakota grandmother and the woman who shares her culture as much as she shares her talent.
"Unci" is Lakota for grandmother. It's also the name of a one-woman play by Hanay Geiogamah. Lakota elder Claudette Sabor has performed this play 42 times over the last 9 years. The story takes place on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation on the afternoon preceding a namegiving ceremony and giveaway. As "Unci" sorts through items she's chosen for the giveaway, she reminisces about her life with her visitors who are the audience.
Claudette Sabor's acting roots date back to the 1960s. That's when she appeared in films with Elvis Presley and Tony Curtis. She's lived in Chicago and Los Angeles, but has spent the latter part of her life on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Although Claudette has enjoyed a variety of roles in her long career, her favorite is the character of "Unci".
"I feel that I'm breaking barriers. I'm breaking barriers of stereotypes. You know, they think, um...like they had me in this 'Lakota Woman', this movie. And I had to act stoic," says Sabor.
Claudette Sabor played her part as required in the 1994 film "Lakota Woman". But she says the role of "Unci" is a much closer portrayal of a real Lakota woman.
"This grandma is not stoic. She's very emotional. And, so, I feel I am breaking barriers," says Sabor. “We do have feelings and we have pride and you know, we don't just keep quiet.
The character "Unci" runs the gamut of emotions: from combative in offering her opinion on the BIA, to tender when recalling her late husband, to distraught as she remembers her son who died in combat.
Claudette Sabor's latest presentation of "Unci" was at The Dahl Arts Center, in Rapid City. Dahl spokesperson Darla Drew Lerdal says she booked the play without having first seen the production.
"I was astounded. I thought it was remarkable. I thought it was moving. And the thing was, she didn't seem like an actress to me when she was on that stage. It seemed like she really was remembering her life," says Lerdal.
Lerdal says the play falls into the category of "edutainmnet". It educates the audience while entertaining them. For Susan Campbell, there was more to be learned from seeing the play after it was over. That's when Claudette holds a question and answer period.
"I've seen a couple of giveaways and I thought it was interesting when she explained it at the end and what it was all about. And how they use it at happy times and at sad times in a way of letting go emotionally and giving to people," says Campbell.
But it isn't just non-Native audience members who take something away from Claudette's performance. Tarah Piper is a Crow tribal member living in Rapid City. Piper brought along her 10-year old daughter, Haley, to see "Unci".
"She doesn't get to be around our family from Montana. I wanted to bring her to this event just to get a feel of just spending time maybe with an elder or her own grandmother. I think she enjoyed it," says Tarah Piper.
Haley Piper says she did.
"I thought that it was going to be kind of boring. But then I went in and it started getting really interesting," says Haley Piper.
Haley's friend, Alexis, liked it, too.
"When she sang that song, it felt like, something connected or something like that," says Alexis.
Actress Claudette Sabor says that's the reaction she hopes for. She wants to keep performing "Unci" as long as she continues to connect with her audience.
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