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The Frybread Queen

An intergenerational conflict sparked by the death of a man who held significant roles in the lives of four Native American women.

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Elizabeth Rolston, Ria Nez, Jolie Cloutier and Dawn Jamieson in a scene from Carolyn Dunn’s “The Frybread Queen” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Marlene Flores)

[avatar user=”Scotty Bennett” size=”96″ align=”left”] Scotty Bennett, Critic[/avatar]

Different types of food are integral to the traditions that define many cultures. Often incorporated into rituals and ceremonies, they add a layer of meaning to the preparation and sharing of a meal. Examples include the tea ceremony in Japan, the unique sweets used in India during Diwali, the role of pasta in Italy, matzah in Jewish households, and frybread in Native American communities.

Frybread is said to have been developed by Navajo women in the 1860’s after the Navajo people were moved from their ancestral homeland in Arizona to a reservation in New Mexico. The United States government supplied the people with basic foodstuffs different from what they had used for centuries. The flour, sugar, baking soda, and lard of the rations are what the women used to create what became known as frybread. Over the years that followed, many other Native American people adopted frybread as a part of their regular diet. It is called a Native American tradition, but there are groups within the communities that see it as a sign of oppression. They see the fact that the ingredients were forced on them and that the high carbohydrate and fat content contributes to many of the health issues afflicting Native American communities now.

The Frybread Queen, a unique narrative penned by Carolyn Dunn and brought to life under the direction of Vickie Ramirez, delves into an intergenerational conflict sparked by the death of a man who held significant roles in the lives of four Native American women. While the making of frybread serves as a tool to highlight the characters’ diverse attitudes and emotions, it is not the central theme of the play. The primary focus is on the fate of the deceased man’s daughter and the mystery surrounding his death.

Elizabeth Rolston and Dawn Jamieson in a scene from Carolyn Dunn’s “The Frybread Queen” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Marlene Flores)

The play unfolds in four acts, each introduced by one of the characters presenting their frybread recipe with commentary, or, in the case of one character, no recipe and a commentary on the history and meaning of frybread. The show begins with a prologue by Jessie Burns (Dawn Jamieson) presenting her recipe for making Navajo frybread. She does it without explaining who she is, except she has been a champion frybread maker for many years.

The opening scene is set in Jessie’s kitchen in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. She is busy mixing the ingredients for her version of frybread. As she moves to some cabinets to look for something, she finds a gun, which she moves to the refrigerator’s freezer compartment. This gun will play an important role later in the story.

Her daughter-in-law, Carlisle Emmanuel Burns (Ria Nez), enters carrying bags of groceries. Carlisle is married to Jessie’s young son Stephen, the brother of the deceased son Paul. Shortly after, Annalee Walker Hayne (Elizabeth Rolston), widow of Paul and stepmother to his teenage daughter Lily Savannah Santiago Burns (Jolie Cloutier), enters, pulling an oxygen tank she is connected to. Carlisle, Annalee, and Jessie’s conversation about frybread reveals the tension between Jessie and the other two women. After Jessie leaves, the women discuss their goal of taking Lily away from Jessie and moving her to Los Angeles to live with Carlisle.

Jolie Cloutier and Ria Nez in a scene from Carolyn Dunn’s “The Frybread Queen” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Marlene Flores)

Each act reveals the backstory of the three women’s relationship with each other, using the preparation of frybread for the funeral dinner as a constant reference point. The reasons Jessie doesn’t like either of her daughters-in-law are revealed. Lily learns things about her father and dead mother she never knew. The complicated relationship between Annalee and Carlisle concerning Paul and Lily is exposed. And, into this mix, is the ghost of Paul to add a further dynamic to the story and to introduce additional aspects of Navajo lore, the Ghostland.

The portrayals of the characters are believable but uneven. There are times when the way emotions expressed by Jamieson’s character are not in keeping with the scene at hand, or the scenes when Paul’s ghost appears, not creating a sense of foreboding. Still, the cast provides an engaging narrative.

The main issue with the production is the performance space. A larger venue is needed to present the full scope of the story adequately. The scenic design by Daniel Allen provides a sense of the house and kitchen. Still, it cannot define the exterior scenes necessary to understand the settings completely. It is not clear that certain actions are taking place outside of the house.

Dawn Jamieson, Jolie Cloutier, Ria Nez and Elizabeth Rolston in a scene from Carolyn Dunn’s “The Frybread Queen” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Marlene Flores)

Andrew Garvis does his best with the lighting, but the venue’s limitations constrain its effectiveness, especially when the action is outside the house. Stephanie Renoj Lopez’s costume design works well in showing differences in the characters’ personalities through their clothes. The sound design for the show is important to deliver elements of the story, such as the thunder of a rainstorm or the sound of a car engine. Stephanie L. Carlin’s work as sound designer effectively supports the play’s narrative action.

The Frybread Queen (through May 12, 2024)

Theater for the New City and American Indian Artists Inc. (AMERINDA)

Community Theater, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call: 212-254-1109, or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

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About Scotty Bennett (80 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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