Madeline Sayet is a busy woman these days.
She is touring the country this summer and fall in her autobiographical one-woman play, “Where We Belong,” inspired by her heritage as a member of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut, and described by Broadway World as “one of the great artistic achievements of the pandemic."
Sayet, who has been named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and received the White House Champion of Change Award from former President Barack Obama, also is preparing to teach a Native American drama course (ENG 350: Studies in Literary Histories and Traditions) in the spring of 2023 at Arizona State University in her role as a clinical assistant professor in the Department of English. Sayet has been a member of ASU's faculty since 2021.
ASU News spoke to Sayet about her play and why she decided to join ASU’s faculty.
Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: How would you describe “Where We Belong”? Playbill's coverage references your trip to England to pursue a PhD in Shakespeare and finding a country that refuses to acknowledge its ongoing role in colonialism.
Answer: It’s very abstract. It is about a wolf who becomes a bird. It’s also about my journey to the UK to pursue a PhD and how it mirrors the journeys of my Mohegan ancestors in the 1700s who had to travel to England for diplomatic missions and service for our people. And it’s also about Shakespeare language and colonialism. Those are my three little tidbits. I haven’t figured out for the life of me how to make an actual summary.
The thing that I really enjoy about the structure of the piece, and other people seem to find unique and surprising, is that time kind of layers it. I try to stay true as much as possible in both the storytelling and the form of it to sort of the Mohegan principles and philosophy. But time doesn’t stay linear throughout it. There are movements between 2016 to 2022, but it also moves back and forth across history from as far back as the 1600s.
Q: Where did the inspiration to the write the play come from?
A: When I wrote “Where We Belong,” I wasn’t actually trying to write a play. I had just moved back (to Connecticut) from the UK, where I had been pursuing a PhD in Shakespeare, and it was the first time when I came back home where my feet didn’t root quite right to the earth anymore. Up until then, whenever I came home, it was so obvious that this was the place of my ancestors. And I was feeling sort of disconnected, and I was thinking about my Mohegan name, which means Blackbird, and sort of that perspective of having been flying and flying and flying constantly, and what that changed.
So, I started writing it just as a way to process sort of what I was feeling about. I was also thinking a lot at the time about oral tradition and about the power of traditional storytelling. So, I was like, “What if I take a few moments of stories from my ancestors and I put them together in the form of how a traditional story would be told with this sort of parable of what it means to become a bird (and fly away)?” It was really just an exploration, and I didn’t expect anyone to be like, “This should be a play.” But as I shared it, people really resonated with this question of belonging and what does it mean as an Indigenous person in a globalized world, but also about how borders are constructed and the importance of language. A lot of the play deals with my relationship to my Mohegan language and then the language of Shakespeare and how those two things carry different weight and value in society.
Q: It’s obviously a personal project for you. What was it like the first time you performed it in front of an audience?
A: It was at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. It was making me so sick because I was going to go up there and question Shakespeare and they’re all going to come up and beat me or something. But it was really powerful. They were really responsive to it. It was like an immediate standing ovation. They said it helped them see the space in a different way. What I found is for the people who it does help, it either liberates them because it’s something that resonates or it reframes the way they think about things.
Q: You created a Community Accountability Rider that venues showing your play must agree to. Among the conditions are complimentary tickets for Native audience members, a commitment against any programming featuring red face and an agreement to create an engagement plan to build relationships with local Indigenous communities. Why was that important to you?
A: Once I decided I was going to tour, I was really nervous that the tour itself would become kind of a colonial thing. And it would take the kind of like, Native spot, used to check a box. So, I created the rider. They must present work by a local Native writer that they develop relationships with and have an event around language revitalization. So, it's specific. How are these issues specific in this place, but different from my story? That’s been really rewarding because it means it’s an opportunity for me to interact with Native missions where I am doing the show and learn more about the art and work that’s happening there.
Q: So, what made you decide to teach the Native American drama course at ASU next spring?
A: As I said, at one point I was pursuing a PhD in Shakespeare and I did end up leaving that because, honestly, in addition to sort of the complicated things about academia, especially academia in the UK, I also found that I could just be of more serveice as an artist.
But then during the pandemic I was on a Zoom panel (in 2021) with Ayanna Thompson (a Regents Professor of English at ASU), and as a student she was like a hero to me because she’s such a figure within the field (of Shakespeare). We were talking about Shakespeare and colonialism, and after that panel she said something about, “Hypothetically, if we were to put together this cluster hire, would you be interested in joining us?” Honestly, the group of people I was coming in with in this cluster hire were Shakespeare scholars who I knew. I had read their work. These are people I really respect. And my office is going to be next to theirs. That was really exciting to me.
Q: How did ASU’s commitment to the Native American community influence your decision?
A: ASU has such an incredible relationship with Native peoples compared to most universities. I’ve never worked in a university that has more than one Native person on faculty, period. ASU has more than 60 and more than 4,000 Native students. I just thought, “Wow, if I’m going to be in an educational institution, this is the place what I would really want to be, where I feel the conversation could be moved forward so much more than any other institution I could think of.”
And when I was deciding what to teach, I was like, “Could I teach a class in contemporary Native drama?” I was really excited thinking about this large body of Native students and what I could contribute. So, I’m excited because it’s an opportunity to really take time with Native students and non-Native students to think about the breadth of the canon of Native theater right now. There are Native playwrights from so many different Native nations who are writing in different ways because they’re coming from different sovereign nations, but also because they’re different people with different aesthetics and tastes. The expansiveness of that and to be with really young people is really liberating because it helps them understand how much the genre is expanding. So, that’s really exciting to me because I love, I love teaching classes where we’re thinking about what we can carry forward and what we leave behind and what’s passed down when it comes to stories.