Gems of Yesteryear

Theatre Review by Larry P. Madden

The first week of August I witnessed a piece of Menominee history.  After a nearly fifty-year absence, a traditional Menominee Indian Pageant was staged in the Woodland Bowl in Keshena.  Until then, the nearly lost art of staging productions that told Menominee history and culture through a combination of recorded dialogue, pantomiming, live drums, and an array of dancers under the cover of night was something only elders spoke of.  Under the direction of College of Menominee Nation faculty member, Ryan Winn, this production transported its audience back to a time before the tribe’s federal termination and eventual restoration. 

gems amphitheatre The show, Gems of Yesteryear, was originally staged in 1954 to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Menominee Reservation.  As such, it was a celebratory collection of scenes from the first seventeen annual pageants.  The original show was written and directed by the late James G. Frechette, and his daughter Bea Wilber’s donation of his files to the college this past spring brought the script into Winn’s capable hands.

After the show I spoke to Bruce Wilbur Jr., an actor in the show who portrayed the roles originally portrayed by his grandfather, playwright Frechette.  With his voice cracking, Wilbur swelled with pride over the successful reenactment.  Mr. Wilbur related to me how for many years his grandfather’s scripts and assorted papers were unknowingly stored and through a process of discovery by his mother, Bea, the files came to light and allowed the cast and crew to honor their families by restaging the show.  

And honor they did through a clever production decision that both celebrated the original cast and showcased the modern players. Wilber recited all of Frechette’s lines from the narrator’s area on stage right, after which activist, poet, and all around celebrity Richie Plass explained the modern updates from stage left.  The two of them worked well together on either side of the blackened natural amphitheater.  They added words to the ambiance created by the giant pines, silhouetted stars, and laser-like spotlights designed by Nathaniel Madsen.  Moreover, the sound design by Sabrina Hemken added background music to every scene that added to the catharsis of witnessing a show from a bygone area. 

The show both entertained and engaged through both the stories and the dances.  The Wolf River Singers provided the drum for the ceremonial dances and the highlight was the verbal overview by the respected Joey Awonohopay during the Snake dance.  The crowd was called to dance the closing Intertribal Dance with the cast and hundreds of people, including this reviewer, joined them in the bowl.

Near the end of my conversation with Bruce Wilbur, he admitted to pre-show fears ranging from whether people would come, to the audience’s acceptance of pantomime in 2016.   Wilbur stated for the show itself he attempted to mimic his grandfather's mannerisms as best as he could remember.  “I could have never read my Grandfather's poems and words live without getting emotional,” he said.  After I reassured him that the audience loved the show, Wilbur agreed adding, “Now that it’s over, I just want it to go on.” 

Mr. Wilbur the show must go on, and you, your family, and this production assured that a new generation of Menominee understands the power of the medium.   

 Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.