Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 5, 2001 - Issue 35



Students Showcase Talents
$1.5 million in scholarships
awarded at Red Mesa drama and fine arts festival


 by Nathan J. Tohtsoni The Navajo Times


Times Photo - Paul Natonabah

RED MESA, Ariz. (April 28, 2001) - A half hour after performing on the stage, 15-year-old Kenmery Begay's eyes were still bloodshot from an emotional scene where she cried twice in less than five minutes.

Begay and fellow classmates from Navajo Mountain (Ariz.) High School participated in the 9th Annual Diné Native American Drama and Fine Arts Festival in Red Mesa, Ariz. High school students from across the Navajo Nation took part in the festival, which had professional Native American actors judge and conduct workshops April 17-19.

The students competed for $1.5 million in college scholarships.

"Originally, it started very small," event organizer and Red Mesa drama teacher David Shortey said of the ever-growing festival.

The festival began modestly in 1993 as the one-day Diné Drama Festival in Tuba City. As the years progressed, the venue switched to Red Mesa, professional actors replaced locals as judges and workshops were expanded to three days.

The event ended with the play and monologue competition on Thursday, April 19. About 200 students came from high schools at Chinle, Grey Hills Academy in Tuba City, Navajo Mountain, Navajo Pine, Navajo Preparatory in Farmington, Newcomb and Red Mesa.

Shortey acted in the after-school movie, Secret of the Lizard Woman, which was filmed in Tuba City six years ago. He said through his contacts, he was able to invite the professional actors.

In that after-school movie, Shortey worked with Valerie Redhorse. Redhorse is currently producing Whisper the Wind, a documentary about the Navajo Code Talkers.

Redhorse acted in Naturally Native along with Irene Bedard and Kimberly Norris-Guerrero. All were invited but only Norris-Guerrero made it. Naturally Native was about three urban Indian sisters who develop a line of cosmetics only to face a difficult time in sales due to a racist business community. They turn to their tribe, which finances the business.

Norris-Guerrero, who served as a judge during the play and monologue competition, is remembered for her role as the Native American girlfriend of Jerry Seinfeld on the Seinfeld show.

"There are some really good actors here on the Navajo Nation," she said. "The plays are very meaningful and they're very real."

Norris-Guerrero (Colville/ Kootenai/Salish) also acted in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie The Lost Child. That movie starred a non-Indian actress as a Navajo woman who finds out her roots after living all her life with an Anglo family.

"Now I know there are many Native American actresses who could have played that part," she said. "This is a kind of difficult profession; it's a difficult profession to get into. I always tell people, 'Don't wait for anybody to tell you're good.' If you shoot for the stars, at least you'll come back with the moon."

Playwright Anette Arkeketa (Missouria/Muskogee) also served as a judge.

"The writing talent here is great," Arkeketa said. "I edit for a couple of journals and the writing here is on the same par from what I've seen from college students. (The students) are interested, they have those feelings that they want to succeed. I've seen everybody's eyes light right up, especially with the writing."

Emotional performances
The plays were acted, directed and written by high school students. The themes ranged from the dangers of spreading gossip, the mining of uranium and the relocation that follows, the vanishing practice of passing the Navajo culture to the younger generation, and the Navajo version of Cinderella.

Navajo Prep conducted Shinali Special Rug in Navajo. Savanna Gene played a young girl who sneaks into the hogan of her sleeping grandmother, played by Lydia Edgewater, and unstrings the rug in progress.

The granddaughter had misunderstood that her grandmother would stop passing down the teaching once the rug was completed.

"The play takes place during World War II," said Navajo Prep sponsor Lorraine Manavi. "Even then, (the granddaughter) notices a lot of her grandmother's practices are not being passed down."

The students translated the play from English to Navajo.

In Cry of the Crow, Navajo Mountain students showed how rumors can get out of control. Kenmery Begay played a teen-ager who has rumors passed around about her after she's seen with a young boy, played by Chris Little, who attempts to kiss her but she rebuffs his advancements.

Rumors began circulating that she's pregnant and the pastor of her church makes a home visit. When Begay's character is confronted by her mother and later the pastor, her eyes swelled with tears.

"I just thought about something that was sad," said a serene Begay, 30 minutes after the performance. "It's very emotional. It was really sad. I just thought about my dad (Kenneth Begay Sr.) who passed away when I was really young."

Navajo Mountain took first-place last year for best play. This year, they won best production for Cry of the Crow.

Not bad for a school of 40 students that opened its doors for the first time four years ago, Jean Bayless, Navajo Mountain sponsor, said.

"I thought they did a great job considering how small they are," Bayless said. "When you start with a new school, they haven't done anything - there's nothing to compare to."

The play ended with Begay crying on a chair. Originally the play was supposed to be performed outside but because of the wind, it was brought inside. That brought a misunderstanding between the spotlight person and Begay, who, at the play's end, stood up from the chair, shielded her eyes from the light and said, "Are we done?"

A final scene where Begay's character commits suicide was deleted because of the misunderstanding, Bayless said.

Regardless, the audience gave a roaring ovation. An hour after the performance, Begay was in the hallway talking and playing hackey sack with other students.

Begay earned $8,000 in scholarships after taking second for best actress. She's considering studying acting in college.

Something worthwhile
The $1.5 million in scholarships were donated by University of Indiana-Evansville, Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo., and Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C. Evansville is considered one of the top acting schools in the country and Lees-McRae is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.

Harlan Greyson of Chinle and Jeri James of Navajo Mountain were named top male and female actor. They earned a trip to Hollywood where they will meet casting directors, undergo screen tests and photo shoot, attend the First Americans in the Arts awards ceremony, and intern at the Disney studio this summer.

The best original play was awarded to Red Mesa for The Gifted. All told, 62 scholarships in 17 categories were awarded.

The top actors last year were Red Mesa students Charlene Saunders and Terry Warren.

Last year's success also included six Red Mesa students - counting Saunders and Warren - who were invited to the EuroKids Camp in Vienna, Austria, this summer. An European documentary director noticed the students during the 2000 festival. The students depart May 22 and return June 3. They are still raising money to help with the expenses.

Shortey has noticed that the students' attitudes in his drama class have changed since they became involved in the festival.

"It's nice to see my kids go onto college and the self-confidence it brings to them," he said. "They know that they can do something that is worthwhile."

Red Mesa High School




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