The “Frybread Queen” is crowned in Los Angeles

News From Indian Country 12-08


Story & Photos By Arigon Starr

We’re at Stanford Pow-Wow, third day in, we’ve made at least… at least two thousand tacos and here this one is, all dolled up with her long painted nails and big earrings and big hair, just turning it over and over in that big pan... pulls up her hand… four long nails and one short one right in the middle...

Can you imagine some new-ager white guy eating an Indian taco for the first time and they bite into some long-@#$ fingernail… And says… “It’s a sign! My great-great-grandmother, Cherokee Princess Little Feather, is here with me now!”

Five pounds of dough and one broken nail…

From Carolyn Dunn’s new play “The Frybread Queen.”

Carolyn Dunn is amazing. I’m not the only person who thinks so.

Ms. Dunn is a poet, academic and traditional singer and an outstanding playwright. Carolyn is of Cherokee, Muskogee Creek, and Seminole descent on her father’s side, and is Cajun, French Creole, and Tunica-Biloxi on her mother’s. She grew up in Los Angeles, but her roots are deep within all of Indian Country.


Her most recent play, “The Frybread Queen,” was presented as a staged reading in Los Angeles as part of Native Voices at the Autry’s “First Look” series. Native Voices at the Autry is dedicated to developing and presenting new plays from Native American writers and paired Carolyn with an all female production cast and crew. I was lucky enough to play “Annalee Walker,” and was joined by fellow actresses Kateri Walker, LaVonne Rae Andrews and Rayanna Zargosa and first-time director Jennifer Bobiwash. Early in the rehearsals, we looked around the production table and were amazed and proud to not only recognize ourselves as sister artists – but also Native sisters.

Ms. Dunn’s work has been recognized by the Wordcraft Circle of Storytellers and Writers as Book of the Year for poetry (Outfoxing Coyote, 2002) as well as the Year’s Best in 1999 for her short story Salmon Creek Road Kill, the Native American Music Awards (for the Mankillers CD “Comin to Getcha”) and the Humboldt Area Foundation.

As an academic, Carolyn’s work has primarily focused on landscape in American Indian women’s literature (poetry, prose, and drama), and urban American Indian identity formation in California. Currently, she is a James Irvine Foundation Fellow at the Center for American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, where she is pursuing a doctorate. She has taught and developed university curriculum in American Indian literature (poetry and fiction), history, and theatre; she has adapted and directed numerous radio theatre plays as well as staged productions of traditional stories, poems and songs with the American Indian Theatre Collective, Chapa De Indian Youth Theatre Company, The Los Angeles Theater Project and Native Voices at the Autry.

 (L-R) “Frybread Queen” director Jennifer Bobiwash and writer Carolyn Dunn at the Wells Fargo Theater, Autry National Center in Los Angeles, CA.

“The Frybread Queen” tells the story of three generations of Indian women, bound by marriage and family ties. They come together for the funeral of a beloved son and in their grief, they confront long simmering tensions and family secrets that threaten to tear them apart. Carolyn’s script captured the essence of contemporary Native women and it was fascinating to learn what motivates her work. “My artistic influences are family stories, crazy experiences on the road with the Mankillers, too many years of making lots of Indian tacos at Pow-Wows and camp kitchens during dances and ceremonies. The story of the broken nail in the ‘Frybread Queen’ is very true.”

“I wanted to write a show with an all-woman cast because I don’t think there’s a lot of strong roles for strong actresses,” said Dunn. “I choose a multi-generational cast because family stories are important.” As she wrote “The Frybread Queen,” Ms. Dunn focused on the story elements she hoped the audience would take away from the play. “I wanted them to know that in the face of tragedy, we still have our humor about ourselves. It’s what we have always done – laughed in the face of devastation. There can be great healing in families and we don’t have to follow what is expected of us by people outside of our communities.”

There are a handful of fantastic plays featuring Native women in the theater (Thompson Highway’s “The Rez Sisters” comes to mind) and of course, the legendary Spiderwoman Theater group. I asked Carolyn what other stories she would like to see onstage. “I’d like to see an accurate representation of Native peoples that reflect our diversity. We come from different languages and cultures. I’d like to see us in contemporary moments as well as other historical moments that aren’t attached to the alleged ‘vanishing’ Indian. Stories of other places in historical time – Oklahoma during statehood, the Pueblo Revolt – not just places in the white ‘imagined west.’ Also, contemporary stories that take place on reservations, cities, Rancherias, would be great to see. Comedies, too!”

Carolyn has worked extensively with Native Voices at the Autry. Executive Director Jean Bruce Scott and Artistic Director Randy Reinholz are supporters of Carolyn’s writing and featured her as an actress during the annual Native Voices Playwright’s Festival that took place last June in San Diego and Los Angeles. Carolyn notes, “Native Voices at the Autry is very supportive. It is a nurturing process and having Native actors and Native producers who are championing one’s work makes a big difference. It is a space to try new things. To have others read your work to hear if it makes sense and then have the opportunity to write and rewrite is great. It’s an opportunity for folks from all over the country to write and develop their work. They aren’t afraid to take risks.”

One important aspect of the Native Voices at the Autry experience is the chance for the local Native community to come together and enjoy the performance. The turnout for “The Frybread Queen” was impressive, especially for a mid-week evening performance. Carolyn enthused, “I was pleased. Seeing new faces in the audience was great!”

The cast of “The Frybread Queen” in rehearsal onstage at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. L-R: Arigon Starr, LaVonne Rae Andrews, Rayanna Zargosa, Kateri Walker. 

I asked her what she thought would get Native audiences in Los Angeles and across the U.S. to make coming to the theater a habit. “If the stories are something that Native people can relate to, I think they will come. So much stuff out there is something they may not have experienced so they won’t relate. What I like about “Super Indian,” (the ten-part comedy radio series project now being webcast at and produced by Native Voices at the Autry and the Native Radio Theater Project) for example, is that it’s so crazy! In contemporary Indian theatre, how often do you see an Indian superhero? The characters are so out there – especially to non-Indian audiences who have been conditioned to see Indians on horseback in the Plains or drunk on the side of the road. Indians are people, too and we have all kinds of Indians in Native America.”

The audience at “The Frybread Queen” rocked the Wells Fargo Theater with their laughter and they were stunned into silence during the dramatic turns. Most of the audience stayed for a lengthy talk-back session with Carolyn, Jean Bruce Scott and Carlenne Lacosta of Native Voices, plus the cast and director. How did Carolyn react to their very direct comments? “I was encouraged by the positive response and was pleased that folks were able to laugh and cry at the same time with all of the characters. I was happy folks were able to see the landscape in the reading. They felt as though they were actually in Arizona with the characters.”

Ms. Dunn, in addition to being a hard-working scholar and artist, is also a tireless Mom. She is married to James Anderson, a Choctaw from Mississippi, and they are parents to a son and two daughters – the next generation of Native artists. “My kids are also very drawn to the arts, and I would hope they see there are opportunities for Indian artists to have their voices heard.”

For more information:

Carolyn Dunn

Native Voices at the Autry

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