‘Urban Indian’ explores beyond the reservation

By Peter Santilli
New York, New York (AP) 3-09

In the opening scene of “Tales of an Urban Indian,” Darrell Dennis’ semi-autobiographical one-man play about his struggles with substance abuse and his identity as a Canadian Indian, Dennis explains his reason for writing it.

“It’s a story I need to tell, not because it’s extraordinary, but because it’s common,” he tells the audience. “Too common. And it’s not told enough.”

The play, which is alternately engaging and slow-moving, opened recently at off-Broadway’s Public Theater. It takes us on the lifelong odyssey of its main character, who goes by the name Simon Douglas.

The journey begins with an absorbing account of Simon’s experience as an impressionable, young boy coming of age in the sheltered isolation of an Indian reservation.

His development takes an interesting turn when he and his single mother relocate to Vancouver, a move that presents a unique set of challenges as the boy strives to assimilate to a new culture and urban lifestyle.

To further complicate matters, the two later return to live on the reservation, before moving to Vancouver a second time.


This back-and-forth between worlds, and more specifically, Dennis’ observations about Indian culture and his own place in the world beyond the reservation, are mostly engrossing and highly original.

Unfortunately, the play descends too quickly into an all-too-common, cautionary tale of alcoholism and drug abuse.

It’s not that the main character isn’t easy to sympathize with or that his vices aren’t relevant to the rest of the play. The problem is his tangle with addiction is predictably less interesting than everything that preceded it. His slow descent to rock-bottom occupies too much of the play, which is nearly two hours with no intermission.

Far more compelling, for instance, is his depiction of the heavy-handed Christian education he was forced to endure, like many other Canadian Indian children of his generation. There is also a poignant portrayal of Simon’s grandmother, who represents his ties to native culture and tradition.

Under the direction of Herbie Barnes, Dennis’ performance is pleasantly theatrical. But too many attempts at humor fall flat and dilute the story rather than enhance it.

“Tales of an Urban Indian,” running through March 15, is part of PUBLIC LAB, a new play series presented by the Public and the LAByrinth Theater Company. Its goal is to present new works quickly with minimal stage design and a short rehearsal period. The production is also presented as part of the Public’s Native Theater Initiative.