John Kauffman, a Nez Perce actor and playwright, wrote a one-man show called “According to Coyote,” which shared stories of the trickster of Native American mythology, and toured it throughout the Northwest and Hawaii until his death in 1990.
Decades later, the show still holds a special place in director Josephine Keefe’s heart. Kauffman’s niece, Keefe grew up watching recordings of her uncle’s play on repeat. Although Kauffman performed many of his original pieces in the region, “According to Coyote” premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1987.
“I was a young girl at the time, but I remember one of my earliest childhood memories being that I’m sitting in front of a television, an old television with a VHS recording of the performance of ‘According to Coyote’ at the Kennedy Center, and my uncle, kind of dancing and moving in and out of this light on the stage,” she said. “It was very grainy, not the high resolution that you would have today – but I remember being just transfixed by it.
“The story of Coyote – the performance aspect of this one man show had a profound effect on me.”
Directing the show has always been a desire for Keefe. It was just a question of finding the right team. With help from the Spokane Ensemble Theatre, Red Eagle Soaring and the One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival, that desire is coming true on Monday, in conjunction with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Another big part was finding “Coyote.”
And Nez Perce actor Kellen Trenal Lewis, who recently appeared in “Reservation Dogs,” was the one for the job.
“Kellen was the first person that I thought of for this role,” Keefe said, mentioning both his cultural background and knowledge of the material as well as his extensive dance training.
“He understood what was ahead of him with this piece of text … and you have to have a performer who has the stamina, the strength and the ability to be the dancer, the performer, at times the singer. It really requires someone who can embody multiple genres of art within this one performance.”
Lewis has enjoyed diving into the role.
“It’s been a great journey so far,” Lewis said. “Being able to get a deeper understanding and a means of connection, as well as our shared connection to the different legends and texts that come through in these Coyote tales.”
Through long form narration, Lewis takes on the role of Coyote and several other supporting characters as he brings a series of adventures to life on stage.
“It’s really an anthology, a collection of some of the most cherished Coyote stories for plateau tribes,” Keefe said. “Stories that Kellen and I each grew up with.
“There’s a number of people who will recognize these stories from outside the text … but as it stands, ‘According to Coyote’ follows the life of this trickster hero.”
He may not always act with others’ interest in mind or have the best intentions.
“But all audiences learn from both his successes and his mistakes,” Keefe said.
If all goes well, following in Kauffman’s footsteps, Keefe and producer Juan Mas hope to take the show on tour.
Fun for the whole family, the hour-long show is “an encounter with the richness and vitality of Native American culture using age-old traditions of music, dance, and theatre,” Mas explained in an email. It will “highlight the cultural importance of passing down stories to future generations as well as the origin story of the Nez Perce tribe.”
The show will run for two free premiere performances on Indigenous People’s Day at the Riverfront Pavilion. A paid performance will also be given at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture on Sunday, Oct. 16. Donations will benefit the Salish School of Spokane.
Stephanie Hammett can be reached at (509) 459-5013 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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