The storyline of Hiawatha is taken from Ojibwe mythology but set in present day America where Chanie, a member of the Ojibwe nation, witnesses the murder of his transgender friend at the hands of racist, transphobic white supremacists. He is rescued from a pit of despair and self-destruction by his family who aid his recovery by telling him the story of his ancestors. The story blends historical fact with Ojibwe tales and is acted out on stage so the audience are welcomed into the pre-colonisation world of Chanie’s ancestors. I have borrowed names for Chanie’s ancestors from Longstaff’s epic poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ so the audience meet Hiawatha and Laughing Water as they try to guide their warring nations out of a cycle of bloodshed, retribution and hurt. Chanie, in the present day, is healed by the narrative and inspired by his ancestors’ strength and compassion to forge his own path to peace.
A Selection of Music from Hiawatha:
Act I, Scene 1
We see Millie setting up the drab and unfashionable bar she works in. She sings lamenting her unfulfilling employment, not befitting her college education. Her co-workers are hungover from a night out that she did not attend and she feels distant and alone until her friend, Trudy, arrives to start her shift. Millie’s mood improves until she remembers that a regular, obnoxious group of off-duty policemen are expected that evening. When the policemen file in, Trudy disappears and Millie ends up waiting their table. Later in the evening the bar is visited by Chanie, a handsome Native American, and his transgender friend, Gabriel. During a conversation with them, Millie finds out that they are stopping in on their way to a club called Haze but their conversation is interrupted by a drunken policeman who shouts over demanding service. Millie tries to ignore him but he continues and starts making derogatory comments about Chanie and Gabriel’s Native American heritage. Anxious to avoid police attention, Chanie and Gabriel leave. Millie looses her temper, up’s the policemen’s table and tells them to get out. Trudy comforts her and suggests that they leave work and go to a club that she wanted to visit at the end of their shift. Millie’s co-workers agree to cover for her and she and Trudy leave. Trudy reveals that the club she wanted to visit was Haze.
Act I, Scene 2
We see Millie and Trudy in Haze. Trudy explains to Millie that the club is busy because people have come to see a big R’n’B artist who has yet to perform. The club erupts in excitement as the anticipated artist comes onto the stage. Millie recognises the performer as Gabriel who raps about life as a transgender Native American. Towards the end of his performance, the club is stormed by a group of white supremacists. Among them is Mark Collins who shoots Gabriel in the head. Panic ensues as people flee from the club. In the confusion, Millie finds herself separated from Trudy but sees Chanie rooted to the spot, feet away from the inert figure of his dead friend. Millie goes to him and drags him away and out of the club to safety.
Act I, Scene 3
Millie takes Chanie back to the bar she works at. It is closed for the night and all the staff have left so she sits Chanie down and goes to make him a drink. We see him make a phone call and hear a drug dealer on the other end. They arrange to meet up. As Millie returns with drinks he thanks her for her kindness but apologises and leaves.
Act I, Scene 4
In an alleyway, we see Chanie slumped in a drug induced state of semi-consciousness. We hear a pickup truck approaching and a man enters. He walks to Chanie and tries to revive him saying that he is his Uncle, Asin. Failing to wake him, he drags him off stage and we hear the truck pull away.
Act I, Scene 5
We hear the truck arrive at Asin’s house on the reservation. Asin drags Chanie on stage and leans him against a shed. He checks he is still breathing before dragging him inside and locking the door. There follows an R ‘n’ B style piece in which Asin reveals that he is going through a process he went through ten years ago when Chanie was last in the grip of substance addiction. We see Chanie’s withdrawal through a transparent wall of the shed while Asin sits outside trying to sooth him. Time speeds up and we witness days following nights with Asin barely moving and Chanie having moments of unconsciousness interspersed with bodily convulsions. When the worst seems to be over, Asin unlocks the shed and goes inside. We see him cradling Chanie.
Act I, Scene 6
Inside his house, Asin is tending to Chanie who is resting in a bed. Nokomis, Asin’s mother, arrives and she berates Asin for locking Chanie in a shed and for not asking her for help sooner. When she calms down, she sits with Chanie and tells him that she is going to tell the story of his ancestors. Talking to Chanie, she introduces the characters of Hiawatha, a young Ojibwe chief, driven half mad by the brutal killing of his Father by Dakota warriors, and Laughing Water, the young daughter of the Arrow Maker, a wise Dakota chief. Young Laughing Water is confused by her conflicting feelings about Hiawatha. He is hated throughout the Dakota nation for the series of ruthless and daring raids he led deep into their territory in revenge for his Father’s death. But Laughing Water loves her Father so much that she can only feel pity for Hiawatha having lost his.
Act I, Scene 7
We see Laughing Water talking with her Father alone in his Teepee. She is troubled by her inability to share in her nation’s hatred of Hiawatha. They discuss the nature of evil and whether the term should be applied to Hiawatha. To illustrate the point that a person can act in a manner not consistent with their character, the Arrow Maker sings a humorous song about the foolish exploits of Laughing Water’s Brother, Ahanu. In the song, Ahanu is outwitted by a wolf and he looses all of his belongings, his catch from his hunt, his horse and his clothes and has to walk home naked. At the end of the song, the Arrow Maker reveals that the story was actually about him, not Ahanu. They agree that, though not generally a foolish man, he certainly acted foolishly. They conclude that it must be possible to act evilly without being evil. The Arrow Maker tells his daughter that her sympathy for Hiawatha show commendable compassion.
Act I, Scene 8
Narrating the story, Nokomis explains that ten years have passed. The Ojibwe and Dakota nations are in an uneasy state of peace and Hiawatha is returning to Dakota territory leading a peace party. She reveals that Laughing Water has grown into an important member of her nation as her Father’s most trusted advisor. Laughing Water sings about how her childhood fixation for Hiawatha has passed, more or less. She hints at an idea she has to cement the friendship between the two nations but is concerned that her father would be heartbroken is she shared it with him. She exits when she is summoned to her Father’s teepee. We see the Arrow Maker waiting for her. He sings, lamenting the lives ended by his arrows. Laughing Water enters and sees the ornamental arrow heads he has made. He explains that they are a gift for Hiawatha, symbolising his regret for the past. He tells her that he would like her to present them to Hiawatha upon his arrival. She exits with the arrow heads and sings of her conviction that a better way to ensure the longevity of the peace is for her to marry Hiawatha. Unheard by Laughing Water, the Arrow Maker sings revealing that he had reached a similar conclusion but that he could not bear to give his beloved daughter away.
Act I, Scene 9
Narrating, Nokomis tells us that at that moment, Hiawatha is travelling North into Dakota territory. We see Hiawatha and a band of Ojibwe warriors nervously entering the land of their former enemies. Tempers rise as one recognises the spot where his Father was killed. Hiawatha demands calm and then sings of the hypocrisy with which he must demand restraint in light of his previous violence.
A band of Dakotas are preparing their village for Hiawatha’s arrival. They sing about their commitment to peace in spite of their own grievances that they would like to avenge. The number reaches a climax as Hiawatha arrives at the village.
Act II, Scene 1
Addressing the assembled Dakotas, Hiawatha delivers a speech expressing his regret for the past and asking for their forgiveness. The speech is well received and he wins further good favour when he presents a gift of beaver carcasses. They are prepared quickly and a feast gets underway. The Arrow Maker greets Hiawatha and invites him to retire with him and some other Dakota chiefs to smoke the peace pipe. They retire to a tee-pee.
Inside, one of the Dakota chiefs displays some hostility towards Hiawatha and discredits his speech. The atmosphere sours but an argument is avoided when the Arrow Maker reminds them that they are supposed to be setting an example for their men. Talking to his fellow Dakota chiefs in their own language, the Arrow Maker reminds them what happened to Hiawatha’s Father. Another chief hints that the manner of Hiawatha’s Father’s death was more gruesome than Hiawatha realises. They revert to a language that Hiawatha understands and the Arrow Maker calls his daughter. Hiawatha stares at her, transfixed. The arrow heads are presented with words of reconciliation from the Arrow Maker before the chiefs leave the tee-pee to rejoin their men.
Reunited with his warriors, Hiawatha hands out arrow head pendants and they don them. He sits to eat but is beckoned back to the empty tee-pee by Laughing Water. They disappear inside together.
Act II, Scene 2
As narrator, Nokomis explains, in disgust, how Hiawatha gave in quite willingly to Laughing Water’s seduction. Her narration morphs into dialogue as we see Nokomis playing the part of Hiawatha’s Grandmother in her own story. Hiawatha’s grandmother, Nokomis, is in her tee-pee confronting Hiawatha for his actions which she perceives as idiocy and cowardice. Hiawatha defends his actions and explains how beneficial the state of peace between the nations had been and how a possible union between himself and Laughing Water could make it more permanent. The argument remains unresolved and Hiawatha leaves.
Act II, Scene 3
As narrator again, Nokomis tells us that a bitter winter arrives. Hiawatha is in his tee-pee sharing some unpleasant gruel made from corn with his friends, Chibiabos and a simple giant, Kwasind. Bickering with Hiawatha, Chibiabos complains about the quality of the food when Hiawatha has better quality reserves that he is saving for the greater hardships ahead. Hiawatha raises the point that the Dakotas don’t cultivate corn and so their suffering must be greater than their own. Chibiabos thinks he is making a joke and they bicker about whether the Dakota’s suffering is funny or not. Unable to illicit any sympathy for their former enemies, Hiawatha leaves to see Nokomis.
Act II, Scene 4
As narrator, Nokomis tells us that months pass, the winter deepens and Hiawatha has still failed to discuss his concerns for Laughing Water’s well being with his friends. In desperation, Hiawatha goes to see his Grandmother who is in a more agreeable mood than normal. To Hiawatha’s surprise, she has already guessed that he is worried about how Laughing Water might be faring in the particularly severe winter. They talk about what to do but, as they agree that giving away a proportion of their corn would be unthinkable, there seems to be no practical way he can help. But then Nokomis tells Hiawatha a story that happened during another bitter winter many years ago. A friend of hers had saved them from starvation by appealing for help from the spirits. They had told him to fill his largest sack full of ice and snow and drag it to the top of a hill. They warned him that he would hear voices and see visions trying to dissuade him in his work but if he ignored them and placed the sack on the hill then in the morning it would be filled with fish. Nokomis tells Hiawatha where to go to find the spirits but warns him that they will test his resolve and to believe nothing he perceives until the morning. Hiawatha leaves to begin his trial.
Act II, Scene 5
As narrator, Nokomis tells us that Hiawatha did as she had bid and we see him dragging an enormous sack of ice and snow. Chibiabos appears. Hiawatha realises he is imagined but is comforted by the company and stops for a while, glad of the rest. After exchanging good-natured insults, Hiawatha tries to take up his sack again to continue but Kwasind appears, adopting a silent expression of murderous rage. Chibiabos tells Hiawatha that Kwasind knows he is planning to take their food away to their enemies. Hiawatha defends his actions saying that if the spirits give him a gift of food then it is his to do with as he pleases. Chibiabos warns him before he takes up his sack again that a band of hungry Ojibwe warriors were coming for him. As Chibiabos and Kwasind fade, the band of warriors appear. There is a ballet sequence as Hiawatha does battle with them. Once victorious, Hiawatha takes up his sack again but a vision of his Father appears lying seriously injured and full of arrow shafts. He calls to Hiawatha to help him up. Hiawatha goes to him and, beholding his injuries, assumes that he is seeing how he died. His Father corrects him and reveals that he died when Dakota warriors came and hacked off each of his limbs and that he needed his help to escape before they came. Hiawatha has to leave him and take up his sack again as Dakotas surround his Father. Their axes bite into his Father’s flesh as Hiawatha drags his sack to the top of a hill. Once he puts the sack on top, all of the visions fade and, exhausted, Hiawatha walks to the bottom of the hill and lays down to sleep. In the morning he opens his sack and finds the body of a buffalo. He dances his thanks to the spirits before shouldering it and starting the journey North to the Dakotas.
Act II, Scene 6
Back in Asin’s house, Nokomis is sat by Chanie’s bed finishing her story. She tells how Hiawatha delivered the buffalo to the starving Dakotas, won their hearts and married Laughing Water. When the ice thawed, they journeyed home and the peace between their nations held fast for many generations. Asin politely interrupts to tell Nokomis that Chanie has a couple of visitors, Millie and Trudy. Nokomis gets Chanie ready to receive them while Asin and the visitors chat. The conversation turns towards Asin’s work with the church on the reservation and he confides in them about a community café that has been left in a sorry financial state by the elderly volunteer who had just stepped down. Trudy volunteers Millie to help run it, citing the fact that she had quit her job and has time on her hands. This causes Asin and Millie some embarrassment but Millie doesn’t say no and Asin explains that there is accommodation available for whoever eventually takes over the café.
Once up and dressed, Chanie enters with Nokomis. She and Asin leave the three youngsters to catch up. Millie explains to Chanie that a man has pleaded guilty to the murder of Gabriel and that a lawyer is trying to get in touch with him about a victim impact statement for the sentencing trial. He takes the lawyers number. After prompting from Trudy, Millie reluctantly asks Chanie if he would like to join them that night for Haze’s reopening after its period of closure following the attack. He agrees and suggests they leave immediately to go to a few bars first. They say their goodbyes to Asin and Nokomis and leave.
Act II, Scene 7
Unseen speakers announce the sentencing trial of Mark Collins and we hear Chanie being sworn in. He takes the stand. He raps to the jury introducing himself as the victim’s best friend. He tells them that, despite this, he is going to speak on behalf of the defendant, explaining that he had spent some time with before the trial.
He tells them that his search for Mark took him to his last known address. In a flash back we see Mark’s partner answering the door and yelling about how the defendant had left her on her own looking after his kids without the financial resources to do so. Chanie continues to the jury telling them that he eventually found Mark but only just in time. Chanie then rushes from the stand to a flash back of him trying to prevent Mark from hanging himself. He holds Mark up to prevent the noose from closing his airway and eventually gets Mark safely to the floor. Chanie explains to Mark who he is and that he wants to understand his motives for killing his friend.
Addressing the jury again, Chanie tells how he and Mark had sat and talked and he listened to Mark telling him about how his mother had fallen pregnant with him after being raped. There is a flashback to Mark continuing the story. He raps about how he started selling drugs for someone. It was a perilous existence and, as a white drug dealer, he was in the minority and would regularly be assaulted by black and hispanic gangs who controlled most of the trade. Then he fell in with a group of white supremacists who took him in as one of their own. They looked out for him and, next time he was attacked, they intervened and beat one of the black gang members to death in front of him.
Addressing the jury again, Chanie explains how Mark came to be indoctrinated into the white supremacists’ way of thinking and started to believe that the perceived decline in living standards caused by changing economic realities was actually a result of the influx of non-white neighbours. He appeals to the jury for leniency in light of Mark’s tragic story and suggests that his actions can be attributed to flawed cognitive patterns that are common to all people. He leaves the stand.
Act II, Scene 8
We see Millie and Trudy outside the community café. They are shutting down for the day. Millie is repeatedly explaining to a forgetful old man that the café will be shut tomorrow because of the pow-wow that is happening that evening. The old man is alternatively concerned that the café is going to be closed and excited about the pow-wow. He leaves and a delivery man arrives with some donated food. He enquires about an event he saw being set up on the way in and Millie explains about the pow-wow. Chanie arrives and, unseen to the others, he listens in amusement to Millie’s inexpert explanation of what a pow-wow is. The delivery man leaves and Trudy takes the donated food inside. Chanie approaches Millie and teases her about her description of the pow-wow. She asks about the trial but Trudy returns before Chanie can say much about it. Millie says that they are meeting Asin and Nokomis by the café before going to the pow-wow together. Trudy goes back inside to get snacks while they wait. Once alone, Millie kisses Chanie and tells him how proud she is. Asin and Nokomis enter and Trudy returns with nachos and a bottle of wine which she shares out. They talk together and we find out that Chanie is performing in the pow-wow to Trudy and Millie’s delight and astonishment. They tease him good naturally about it before finishing their drinks and leaving to go to the pow-wow.
Act II, Scene 9
There is a balletic scene in which the pow-wow is performed. This leads segue into the curtain call.