Madeline Sayet on Where We Belong

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 170

In her play Where We Belong, Mohegan director playwright, and performer Madeline Sayet recalls her 2015 journey to the UK to pursue the PhD in Shakespeare that she never ended up getting. The play, now available in a world premiere film adaptation produced by Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and the Folger, explains why she left the degree behind and explores what it means to belong in a complicated world. 

We talk to Sayet about growing up Mohegan in Connecticut and her evolving relationship with the Shakespeare today. 

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you find your podcasts.

Madeline Sayet is a Mohegan theater-maker. She serves as the Executive Director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program (YIPAP) and Co-Artistic Director of Red Eagle Soaring: Native Youth Theatre. In addition to Where We Belong, her plays include Up and Down the River, Antigone Or And Still She Must Rise Up, and Daughters of Leda. This fall, she joins the faculty in the English Department at Arizona State University with the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published June 22, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Farewell, Master, Farewell, Farewell,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: What does Shakespeare's Tempest mean to you? If you see yourself as Miranda or Prospero, maybe it's one thing. If you're Stephano, it's something else. But what if you see yourself as the great-great-granddaughter of Caliban? What does it mean then?

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. That question about Caliban is at the center of a new play by playwright and director Madeline Sayet. It’s called Where We Belong.

When Madeline staged it in 2019, she became the first Native American playwright to have her work performed at Shakespeare’s Globe. Now she’s produced a new version that’s being made available by DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, in association with the Folger, starting June 14.

Madeline is Mohegan. And that heritage is central to Where We Belong. She’s the great-niece of former Mohegan Medicine Woman, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who founded Connecticut’s Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in 1931. Madeline’s mother Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel fought to re-establish Mohegan tribal status in the 1970s.

But Madeline’s play is also about Shakespeare. Madeline once intended to get a PhD in Shakespeare Studies, and the play spends a lot of its time and energy explaining all the reasons why that didn’t happen. Within this Shakespeare/Mohegan nexus, Where We Belong is a play about language, about colonization, de-colonization, erasure, and family.

Madeline Sayet joined us from an apartment in downtown DC, where she was rehearsing the play, for a podcast we call “Farewell, Master, Farewell, Farewell.”

MADELINE SAYET: In the states, I direct plays. As a native person, I promote Native stories. In the UK, I study Shakespeare. My area of research is the relationship between the indigenous peoples of America and Shakespeare’s plays. Today’s story isn’t about Shakespeare though. It’s not a traditional Mohegan story either. Today’s story is how I became a bird.

WITMORE: Madeline is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

-----------------------

BARABARA BOGAEV: So, Maddy, is the protagonist you? I never want to assume. Is it you or is it a character that you’ve created for this play?

MADELINE SAYET: No, it is 100 percent me, which is actually very strange in the rehearsal process because there’s this fine line between what is directed and what is, like, “I can’t really act to that because, you know, it’s actually my life.” So, it’s a really interesting process and that, originally, it was never supposed to be a play. It was me processing some things that I was going through and so, yeah, it’s weird to even hear “the protagonist,” right, in a sentence. Because it’s…

BOGAEV: Right, I’m just going to throw that word out. yeah, forget it.

SAYET: Yes. It is in fact just me, yeah.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
Aquy tonkutayuw. Nuwisuwonk Sgayo Jeets... Nutiewhis Acokayis. Nutayuw mohiksuk, ki’ik wuci socum uncas.

My name is Acokayis. I am a Mohegan. Those are the first words I was taught to say in Mohegan. And I was taught to introduce myself that way everywhere, to make sure Mohegan is always being spoken somewhere. That it’s never really a dead language. That our ancestors still here it every so often, and you remember the ground on which you’re standing.

BOGAEV: I want to hone in right on the Shakespeare. And it sounds like, then from the play, that you came to Shakespeare early. And it also sounds like Shakespeare—or maybe it was just theater—was a refuge for you from what was going on in your life as it is for so many people. So, what were you escaping from?

SAYET: So, yeah, I did come to Shakespeare very young. My mom started taking me to see outdoor Shakespeare productions when I was seven years old. And so, I read the complete works when I was seven. I mean, I just really didn’t understand how to make sense out of the space, I was in between cultures as a kid.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
My parents, they come from different cultures and are already divorced at this point. So, Thanksgiving traditionally consists of two very separate meals to symbolize the division in my family. We do lunch with my mom’s family for Thanksgiving number one: the one with Natives. And dinner with my dad’s family for Thanksgiving number two: the one with Jews.

SAYET: There was this constant tension where I always felt like there was something wrong with me in some way, shape, or form. And at the time, I felt like whenever I could be someone else, that was just so much easier than trying to process whatever was, you know, happening in real life.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
I take comfort in knowing that, no matter how much trouble I’m caught in, I can escape to Shakespeare rehearsal and be someone else.

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

You know, normal teen stuff.

And in Shakespeare I don’t have to worry about making a mistake or saying the wrong thing, it’s already written. I just have to speak what’s been handed to me, and it sounds really good. And makes people think that I’m charming, and funny, and smart. When I speak Shakespeare, people listen. So teen me splits my time between performing for a local Shakespeare company and working for my tribe.

BOGAEV: Totally understandable, and also your mother was a real activist and your whole family was involved in activism. Tell us about that because you say in the play that, “to be Native in Connecticut…”

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
… is basically to be told every day you don’t exist, and decide whether or not today’s the day it’s worth fighting about. As a kid, my mom or other Mohegans would show up at my school to intervene and make sure our history was being taught correctly. But now, as a teenager, my mom is constantly reminding me it’s now my responsibility to fix things.

SAYET: Yeah, so it’s interesting even hearing the word activist, right? Because, I would have never thought about that. Like, in my mind, it’s just sort of what it is to be a Native person. Even to exist is, like, revolutionary. But I suppose it would be. Like, my mom worked very hard when I was kid toward our federal recognition.

[Clip continues]

SAYET:
My Mohegan wolf family was really all about staying put. Like, they wouldn’t leave. Like, at all. As elders, my uncle Tom and aunt Gladys stopped leaving home all together. They were terrified that if they left, they might die somewhere other than on Mohegan Hill. Which, like, let me be clear, to my family is the worst thing that could happen. Our medicine relies on being home, being where our ancestors can look after us

SAYET: My aunt Gladys founded Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum with her brother and father where, you know, which was a space in which my family was very passionate about educating other people about our customs and about our ways. And so, it was never like, “This is activism.” It was like, “If we are to survive, this is necessary.” So, it's just an interesting framework to even think about as activism because it’s like if someone is telling you every day you don’t exist. Do you just accept that you don’t exist or do you say, “Actually, I am in fact here.”

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
In order to talk about Indigenous Shakespeare though, we have to go back to how Shakespeare got to America. To Indigenous peoples. We need to talk about erasure, culture genocide, and assimilationist education initiatives in America designed to eradicate Indigenous cultures and replace them.

BOGAEV: Already we’re into that divide, because I’m thinking that my producer, Richard Paul, grew up in Connecticut. And he told me that as growing up as a kid in his part of the state, no one knew there were Native people in Connecticut.

SAYET: It’s crazy. They do these studies every so often about how many people in America still think Native Americans are alive and it’s astonishing how many people just don’t believe we exist. But when they do, it’s usually they think of Lakota, they think of Navajo. They think of, you know, folks out in different parts of the country.

BOGAEV: In the west.

SAYET: They don’t think about the northeast, yeah.

BOGAEV: They think, basically, about cowboys and Indians.

SAYET: Because, I mean, if you think about the way that we’re trained to think about Native people in America—I mean, America’s main art form is film. So, assume what people have been taught is that not only are we something to be removed so that the white man can succeed, but also that we are far in the west. And there’s a lot of academic writing on that: on the fact that westerns are not easterns is no accident.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
Aunt Gladys, Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon, was a living legend. She founded Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum at the height of the Great Depression with her brother and father on the idea, “It’s hard to hate someone you know a lot about.” Together, they protected our stories and other sacred relations like pipes and baskets within the museum. Where it was warm, and dusty, and always smelled like good medicine.

SAYET: Part of the reason the museum ended up coming into the play was this contrast between Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum and the British Museum. And folks within the development process wanting to know more about that, like, what my expectation would be. And I was like, “Oh, it’s actually very specific because I was raised in an environment where I was raised giving tours in a museum.”

But Tantaquidgeon Museum was originally called Tantaquidgeon Lodge. And the idea that is a lodge was because it was a place where people and spirits gather. It's not a museum where’s there’s boxes and cases. And it’s a little bit more—you know, in order to preserve some of the items—it’s a little bit more formal now than it was when I was a kid.

But when I was growing up, it was very much like an old stone building filled with different relations and everything in that space came there by good medicine, right? There was nothing that was taken, nothing that was stolen. It was all either something that was ours or something that was gifted. And all of the relatives in that space are treated as if they are alive, right? And the stories are handled in that way whereas, you know, you have spaces like the British Museum where you’re basically celebrating a history of violence.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
An academic has asked me to meet up at the British Museum. He wants to know my thoughts on the North American section: the Native American exhibit.

On the way in, we stop through the British section: a celebration of the height of empire. He gestures enthusiastically. “Heres the shield of the first aborigine killed when Cook arrived in Australia.”

SAYET: And the living spirts within objects in those spaces. I mean, most people don’t understand that indigenous peoples in a variety of Native nations have a very different relationship to what is animate and what is inanimate.

[Clip continues]

SAYET:
“Oh yes, we have a ton of Maori trophy heads. Recently a Maori artist wanted them displayed under a structure he built, so that we could show the world what we had done. I thought it was very exciting. Museum didn’t go for it, naturally.”

BOGAEV: Well, I’m thinking of the whole scene in your play where you go to a museum and a museum curator is talking about all of the indigenous peoples in terms of their corpses, really, and you’re just horrified. And this is the kind of experience we grew up with going to see Native Americans in dioramas in the natural history museum.

[Clip continues]

SAYET:
“Here we go, North American section.”

I step back, giving the sacred relations space. “How did these get here,” I ask, looking at a mash of mislabeled Indigenous artworks, like varying nations crowded in a rail car. A continent facing genocide over hundreds and hundreds of years. Wide spaces of geography thrown together in cases without specific acknowledgement.

“Oh they take ‘legally acquired’ very seriously.”

SAYET: And there’s two levels to that. There’s level one, for Native people it’s horrifying even for the things that non-Natives would consider objects to be there; like sacred items that actually have living spirits attached to them that are not physical human corpses. And there are words to describe things that we have in Indigenous languages that are specifically for, you know, animate beings that are not people. But English doesn’t have those words.

And then in addition to that, that mentality that they have about those items is connected to the fact that then, “Oh, once something’s a corpse and not a person, it’s also an object.” And so, this idea that everything in a museum is an object as opposed to everything in a museum is alive are two very different ways of thinking.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
Everyone freaked out when they thought Shakespeare’s head might be missing. But no one cares how many Natives’ skulls sit in boxes unlabeled.

I’m sorry, I have nothing to offer the spirits crowding this building. Mashed up against friends, enemies, strangers who don’t understand them. All yearning to go home. I’m scared to close my eyes and listen to the howling in pain around me. Shhh. I certainly didn’t bring enough tabaco.

BOGAEV: I want to get back to when you were a kid because I know I was this kind of mom where I would tell my kids to go in and if they heard something in history class or anything at school, to speak up and say, “No, it’s not like this.” And in the play you have a scene where your mother’s telling you.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
So on those days when my mother makes sure I go and tell my teachers to their face that I will not be handing in their assignment on Manifest Destiny from a settler’s perspective. But will in fact be writing a paper on Wounded Knee so they learn something.

BOGAEV: So, what was that like for you to be that kid?

SAYET: Yeah, it was very stressful. I was also very shy as a kid and I still don’t handle tension very well. It’s interesting because I feel like I’m in tension all the time now.

BOGAEV: Well, really, this play is doing that.

SAYET: Yeah. Right? But I was very shy and I also had a lot of anxiety as a kid. I was very conflict-avoidant, is the easiest way to put it. And so, yes, I still knew enough to come home and be like, “Mom, they’re having us write a…” Like, I knew enough to know it was wrong and I didn’t want to do it. But, you know, if I came home and said that to my mom and I said, “Well, I don’t want to talk to my teacher,” she would be... she would be livid.

And then, you know, of course she wasn’t going to talk to the teacher, I was going to talk to the teacher. Because if I didn’t learn that I was supposed to be talking to the teacher in that instance, right, then how was I going to learn anything about what kind of a person I should be. Even now, yeah.

BOGAEV: Well, I can really feel the squeeze. Yeah. So what did your mother then think of your interest in Shakespeare given all that?

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
“Oh, you’re acting white. Are you a white person now?”

No, mom.

“This is your responsibility. Did you ancestors sacrifice for nothing?”

SAYET: So, to be honest, the play is a little skewed in terms of narrative construction. The one thing that is not true in the play—spoiler—is that my mom was never actually, like, anti-Shakespeare in any way. I sort of composited other Native peoples’ responses to me and Shakespeare into my mom in order to have it be a little bit more consistent.

[Clip continues]

SAYET:
Alright. I’m going to the UK to study Shakespeare! But as the words leave my lips, my mom shoots back, “Why? Do you want to be white?”

No, I don’t want to be white, I just want to be a part of something I’m good at. Shakespeare isn’t only for white people.

“But you want to study a white man.”

No I’m not studying the man—the white man. I’m studying the ongoing life of his work.

“And you have a zit. See, this is because you want to study a white man. It’s bad medicine.

BOGAEV: Oh, so she didn’t say things like, “You want to study a white man?”

SAYET: No, but other people did. That dialogue is a true dialogue, it just wasn’t dialogue from my mom. I had that, yeah, yeah.

BOGAEV: Well, that dialogue. It was great dialogue because I love when she says, you know, “You want to study a white man? And you have zit. See, this is because you want to study the white man.”

SAYET: “And you have a zit,” yeah.

BOGAEV: “It’s bad medicine.”

SAYET: “And you have a zit,” is actually from my mom. That is from my mom. Yeah.

BOGAEV: So, when you did something wrong or against your heritage, it was bad medicine?

SAYET: Yeah. It was bad medicine. And then also if I had a zit, it was probably because I had done something wrong.

BOGAEV: Oh, my gosh. What a thing to live with.

SAYET: Yeah, yeah, what did you do to deserve this zit, right? What did you do to deserve this zit?

BOGAEV: I mean, I should say—another spoiler alert—the play is a journey of viewing Shakespeare. One way to viewing Shakespeare very differently or experiencing Shakespeare very differently as you evolve. So, in the beginning, for you, it sounds like Shakespeare was this very real passport or a ticket to belonging.

SAYET: Yeah, I mean, yeah, you know, when you’re a kid and somebody says you’re good at something, it’s like, “Oh my God,” right? You’re, like, “That’s the thing. I’m good at that thing. When I do it, people respond to it. I will have a place where I belong. I’ll have, like, a role, within sort of the community.”

But I never really questioned as a kid the fact that while there were all of these opportunities to perform Shakespeare, there were no opportunities at that point in time to learn my Mohegan language. And what that said about society and what was being valued and what was not being valued, you know.

And so, that’s really complicated looking back and I tried to build in... it’s hard, right, to look back and try and build in a journey? But I tried to build in as much of that journey into the story as I could: the sort of reckoning with... there’s, like, being inside of Shakespeare as a character. There’s Shakespeare’s plays, there’s Shakespeare the playwright, and there’s Shakespeare the system and all of these things are so different. And everything kind of gets lumped together as, like, Shakespeare, you know? But they’re really very different things.

BOGAEV: We have so many people come on this podcast and they say, “Oh, Shakespeare is your ticket.” The moment you say, “I want to do this,” then everybody’s on board. Shakespeare’s the universal passport, universal language.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
I can make people laugh, and love me, and think I’m clever, simply by speaking these words. People love the characters in these plays.

SAYET: It is a ticket. It is a passport. Not because it’s universal but because of its role in colonialism. Shakespeare is required in the American common core. Native writers are not, you know. Everyone has a certain familiarity with Shakespeare, not just because everyone loves Shakespeare. Lots of people have familiarity with Shakespeare who don’t actually like Shakespeare, right? But everyone has a familiarity with it because of the way that’s in the education system. And people don’t have a familiarity with things that are not in the education system in that way.

So, to say that it’s universal is to ignore the actual context of the way that it’s operating in society. One of the things that I’m really fighting against within the piece is this universality argument because I heard so much of it, right? “Shakespeare’s universal, Shakespeare’s universal.” It’s, like, well, actually he’s not, but we’re trying to make him that because he’s what we’re receiving and have to process ourselves through.

BOGAEV: And on the level of language, it gets really complicated, too, because among other things and loving Shakespeare, you do love the language, you say in the play. Yet your own Mohegan language was taken from you, and as you write in the play, there are no more fluent speakers of your language. And you speculate at one point, “Maybe if I can just get back to Shakespeare, I’ll have the language I need.” So, what did you mean by that and what does it mean to you to be deprived of your mother tongue and what were you seeking in Shakespeare to bridge that rift?

SAYET: Yeah, I mean, so early on in my journey, prior to sort of processing the more complex, systemic issues, I really found that poetic form offered something that other forms did not, like when dealing with English. And the way that Shakespeare’s text leaves space, the way that they have open metaphors, there’s room for possibility within the text in a way that other English language text don’t necessarily carry. I think that I had at that point successfully found ways to bridge the two. And I also knew that when I bridged the two, people understood the thing that I was trying to explain better.

BOGAEV: Can you think of an example here of what you’re talking about?

SAYET: Yeah, sure. So the first show that I directed was a production of The Tempest that centered on the question, what would happen if Caliban could get his language back?

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
I wish others could see what I see. Every time I read it, see a production, I feel like they’ve got something horribly wrong. Don’t they understand Shakespeare is anti-colonial? That this play is about here, about us. About what the world once was and the possibility of what it could be.

If this is our only representation in the canon, surely Shakespeare wouldn’t want them to be doing what they’re doing.

“This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou takest from me.”

SAYET: Also acknowledging—using it to acknowledge that there are people here. I actually also set it up as a story of something that happened a long time ago because in the play the settlers leave the island at the end.

[Clip continues]

SAYET:
What would people learn if Caliban could only get his language back? What would happen if Caliban could get his language back? If, as he moved towards freedom, his language came back to, replacing that of his oppressor.

If Ariel, the airy spirit too was of here, was blackbirds like me: a flock of blackbirds, everywhere and nowhere at once.

If their language was my language, and this was a story of something that happened here long ago. After all, in the play the settlers leave the island at the end. Maybe I can prove Shakespeare wanted the colonist to leave too.

SAYET: So the idea was that the prologue was in Mohegan and the epilogue was in Mohegan and it’s a story of something that happened as if colonialism never actually happened. But this was something, a brief moment in history.

[Clip continues]

SAYET:
Academics love it. “Oh yes,” they say. “This is what The Tempest was always about.”

I realize the power that comes with showing people a different way of seeing the world.

“This is clearly what The Tempest was always about.”

SAYET: It was always about Native people in the northeast, you know. And it made me go like, “Whoa.” I didn’t change a word of the text. I just made choices with it and it kind of gave me this awareness of, like, I could use this to change people’s minds about things. But then the tricky thing is is the expectation, right? The expectation is still racist.

[Clip continues]

SAYET:
I do what I can to promote Native theater. Make friends, build partnerships with the larger white institutions.

Producers start calling. “We read your article. We heard about your work. We would love you to do a Native version of a classic work. No, no, we don’t need anything specific, just Native-y. You know, generally. Some feathers, fringe, some native flair. No, we don’t need Native performers, we’ll just dress them up to look native.”

SAYET: And when I was doing my academic research, that was the thing I was really interested and focused on: was the idea that if we apply American Indian literary theory to Shakespeare and to Shakespearean performance and Indigenous Shakespearean performance, what does that open up, you know? What does that open up in a way that—I mean, like, western literary theory has been applied to Native lit forever. But what are we actually opening up by considering what things could mean in different ways? Even though we know that, like, he wasn’t necessarily thinking that, what does this lens shift in terms of what’s possible in the poetry?

BOGAEV: Right, and in the play, you say it gets you to talking about erasure and cultural genocide and assimilationist education initiatives. And you personally end up, you know, lecturing on all of this but it sounds like, at least from the play, you run into all sorts of roadblocks. Because there’s a scene where you’re talking to academics, I guess, about how Shakespeare was used to assimilate Indigenous people, and they keep interrupting and they keep misunderstanding.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
More hands go up.
“I thought you were going to talk about Native Shakespeare productions?”

VOICE:
You taught me. Taught me.

SAYET:
I am, but the context is key.

BOGAEV: Is this straight out of your experience?

SAYET: Yeah. It’s that weird thing of people want the simple answer a lot of the time, especially when it comes to do with Shakespeare. Which is so frustrating to me because I think as someone who is actually a Shakespearean, right, who has actually spent so much time thinking about and grappling with these texts and their context in history, the idea that Shakespeare is supposed to just be, like, “Boop, boop, Shakespeare is, like, a good pill that makes you better.” You know? Is so ridiculous and also, I feel like so insulting to the playwright, to be a 100 percent honest.

[Clip continues]

SAYET:
The exciting production in Indigenous languages in the early 2000s. They come out of language reclamation movements. You don’t have a language reclamation movement without a language removal process.

“But you love Shakespeare, yes?”

VOICE:
You taught me language and…

SAYET:
I do. I do. But that doesn’t mean that the original texts aren’t sexist and racist, and that the work isn’t later used as a tool of colonialism.

BOGAEV: Well, what kind of things did they say, then, that reflected that?

SAYET: It’s the idea that it’s like, “Well, no matter what, I have to love Shakespeare, right?” The whole point should always be to make everyone love Shakespeare because we love Shakespeare.

[CLIP continues]

SAYET: “How do we make people love him the way we do?”

VOICE:
And my profit on it is…

SAYET:
You don’t have to do that. He’s not intrinsically superior. People are allowed to love other things.

SAYET: I wrote an article recently on how rounded interrogating the Shakespeare system and I have never had more trolls in my entire life. People being like, “She’s trying to cancel Shakespeare.” And I’m like, “I’m literally a Shakespeare... I’m not trying to cancel Shakespeare. I’m just saying that we should grapple with things in the text.”

And that idea, to some people—not the people actually running Shakespeare theaters for the most part. Most of us are starting to, you know, really engage with that. But a lot of people who have been taught for some reason that Shakespeare is supposed to be this, like, universal magic thing that just solves everything and brings us all together, really can’t accept that it’s not just perfect.

And it’s so ridiculous because anyone who loves Shakespeare doesn’t think that all of his plays are perfect. No one’s like, “Oh my god, I love every single one of Shakespeare’s plays,” right? So it’s just a very bizarre cultural consciousness that exists around this playwright and his work.

BOGAEV: I mean, is this why you gave up your PhD program?

SAYET: Giving up my PhD program is really... it’s funny. A cousin of mine who is considering leaving a program recently asked me why I left my program, and she didn’t believe that it had actually been exactly what happens in the play. But it was exactly what happened in the play.

Well, I don’t know that I should actually give that away. But basically it was a culmination of things and it was a very simple moment where it was a question between: do I want to be a part of this system? Or do I want to go back to working with living people to try and make change that way? And also, just honestly, realistically, within academia, you know, I could have kept working on that book and it would have been published in five years and then someone might have read it. But if I write a bunch of...

BOGAEV: The whole ivory tower thing, mm-hmm.

SAYET: Right, it just takes so long, and it wouldn’t be for the people who I actually care about. And so that’s ultimately what it came down to. Not because I don’t believe in academia, not because I don’t believe someone should write that book, but because I was like, “This is actually not the best investment of my time and energy and I’m basically banging my head against a wall right now.”

Because I’m trying to get people who fundamentally probably will never be able to understand the ideas that I’m trying to explain to understand the ideas that I’m trying to explain when I could just be doing the work with my people back on the other continent and it would actually be so much more straightforward.

BOGAEV: So, where does this leave you with Shakespeare now then, because the play ends with lines in what I assume is Mohegan language as if you or the main character in the play is just done with English and done with the white man.

[CLIP from Where We Belong, written by Madeline Sayet and directed by Mei Ann Teo.]

SAYET:
Wigwomun Jeets Bodernasha. Wigwoman Uncas. Wigwoman Skeedumbak Nonner. Wigwomun Mahomet Weyonomon.

Wigwomun, wigwomun, wigwomun wami skeetumpak aq sqak...

SAYET: I know. That’s not what it’s supposed to be about. I mean, it’s complicated because the whole play was always supposed to be about deconstructing binaries. And there was a million different drafts where it was clear in the last section that I still work with… I mean, I’m joining the faculty at ASU in the fall as part of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, you know. So, it’s not like I am done with Shakespeare. It’s tricky, right, because within a narrative, you have to make choices about what’s important. And ultimately the epilogue is about our COVID moment. It will change again when there’s a different moment that we’re in.

But it was never supposed to be, like, neat. It was never supposed to be, like, this or that. My concern with the play is it feels a little more this or that than it used to in a way that isn’t, I don’t think, helpful to deconstructing the binaries that the play is supposed to deconstruct. But we’ll see what happens. I also think it’s different in performance for that reason because there’s a lot more heart in it and a lot more vulnerability.

But, I mean, no, I’m not done with Shakespeare. I just don’t think he’s the most important thing. He’s taking up too much space. And that other things also need to have equal space so that we can actually have conversations about what it means to be human and not look for this, you know, one white playwright from the early modern period to define what it is to be human, when in fact, he does not know what it means to be Mohegan. He does not know what it means to be all of these other things. And I think that that’s really important.

BOGAEV: And when you say, “He’s taking up too much space,” I don’t mean to take it literally, but literally in terms of, you know, academia, in terms of curriculum. What do you mean by that?

SAYET: Yeah, I mean, he—you know, he’s super funded and that’s not an accident that he’s the most funded playwright. He’s the most produced playwright in America. He is the thing required in the common core. He is treated as if he is a god instead of a playwright. And in that act of treating him as a god instead of a playwright, we compare everything to him. And in comparing everything to him, we create a system that is intrinsically white supremacist because we are saying that him and his world and his values are the best possible thing, and the English language is the best possible thing. And that if you’re going to be a playwright, you need to be more like him.

That is not only incorrect, it’s harmful because it actually reduces the amount of other possibilities that can exist. It reduces what people are creatively inspired by. It reduces who, as a teenager, reads a play and thinks theater is for them. It reduces all of those possibilities.

And so, yes, while I have a relationship to Shakespeare, and I continue to direct Shakespeare, I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. That is to say that that epilogue might disappear and go away and something else might go there instead. Because traditionally—well, I don’t want to give away too much—but it traditionally ended with something else, and I was always caught between. It was never meant to be solved. I was never meant to stop being a bird, yeah. So, it’s very complicated. It’s very complicated. But, no, I have not… I have not given up Shakespeare. I just, you know, don’t center him in my life as much.

BOGAEV: This has been such a great conversation. I really appreciate it, thank you.

SAYET: Yeah, of course, thank you.

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WITMORE: Madeline Sayet’s new play, Where We Belong, is being presented by Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with the Folger. It begins streaming June 14th and runs until July 11th.  You can buy a ticket at woollymammoth.net under “Current Season”—that’s woollymammoth.net and click on “Current Season.” Madeline was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast “Farewell, Master, Farewell, Farewell” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. And we had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.