Kim Delfina Gleason, artistic director of Two Worlds Theatre.

A fledgling theatre company in the Land of Enchantment tells Native American stories with both authenticity and imagination

Pregnant with hope, pregnant with possibility, and just plain pregnant, on Jan. 25, the very night before Two Worlds artistic director Kim Delfina Gleason was due to give birth to her first child, she hosted a monthly table reading at the 12-year-old Native American theatre company’s offices at New Mexico Community Capital in Albuquerque.

While the baby rumbled his soliloquy of intention to join his parents and the vibrant ensemble of Native theatre artists and community members his mom has so devotedly served since 2009, Gleason photocopied scripts, made a fresh pot of coffee, and taped a sign on the street door directing newcomers to the conference room—her swollen belly floating before her, balloon-like, as she moved through her paces.

As participants filed in, some of them seeming almost magically well suited for the multi-generational roles in Zee Eskeets’s drama Fadeaway being read that remarkable evening, Gleason greeted everyone warmly, handing out scripts and gently assigning parts. Some of the readers were complete tyros, curious strangers who’d seen an event notice on social media or who’d been encouraged to attend by a therapist at rehab, while others, like playwright Jay B. Muskett, whose play The Weight of Shadows will be produced by Two Worlds in June, were already part of the Two Worlds family.

“The community kept asking me what’s next, what’s the next show, pushing me to not give up,” Gleason said about her commitment to Two Worlds over the years. “People are asking a lot more, ‘Tell me what happened at Wounded Knee—let’s hear the stories.’ They need Native theatre to exist; really, it depends on me.”

Two Worlds was founded in 2006 by James Lujan, currently the Chair of Cinematic Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, to professionalize the pool of Native actors available for hire in New Mexico’s bustling film industry. But when Gleason assumed the helm at Lujan’s request three years later, she realized there was no purchase in continuing to play savages and princesses, no matter how skillfully.

“I was done playing the poor little Indian girl who can put a feather in her long hair,” Gleason said about her own acting career. “Terry Gomez of the Comanche nation was writing powerful monologues for Native women, big characters. That’s what I wanted—I wanted to see more of that, and more contemporary stories in everyday settings. We’re real people, and not all of us have the same situations. We want to tell our own stories authentically and we don’t want the white society to tell our stories.”

Zee Eskeets.

Eskeets, a graduate of University of New Mexico’s MFA Program in Playwriting, wrote Fadeaway while working toward completion of her degree. Her third full-length play, it’s an imaginative rendering of the real life events surrounding Navajo high schooler Brooke Spencer, a basketball player whose layup won her team in Gallup, N.M.—the Lady Bengals—the state championship in 2006. The college-bound athlete was slain by her on-again, off-again boyfriend, just days after her family’s high school graduation party celebrating her achievements. The grotesque murder stunned the Navajo nation and hit Eskeets particularly hard: the 18-year-old Spencer was her cousin.

“I couldn’t go to her graduation party because I had to work,” Eskeets recalled. “Three days later on the front porch steps of my grandma’s house…” She trailed off at the mention of the setting where Spencer was knifed by the boy, who is set to be released from federal prison next year.

Eskeet struggled with the first iteration of Fadeaway, as she tried to write it from the Brooke character’s vantage point. Ultimately she scrapped the 100-page script because she didn’t want the play to seem “victim-y”—and rewrote it from the murderer’s perspective.

“I hate that guy—I hate him with a passion,” she explained. “But writing the character I started to like him; I don’t know if empathize is the right word. I felt so bad for this guy who has nothing going for him except this girl. He’s in his prison. He loves this person so much, he’s never going to be able to say he’s sorry. I was crying as I wrote the murder scene at 5 o clock in the morning.”

The play received a university production in 2013 and “got standing ovations every night, people coming up to me in tears,” Eskeets recalled. She said Spencer’s mom told her: “That’s exactly how he was; I didn’t think anything like that would happen.”

Eskeets has hopes the show can be produced in Gallup, with Gleason directing. It’s not a far-fetched idea: As Two Worlds board member Lee Francis explained, touring productions to reservations, border towns like Gallup, and pueblo lands in New Mexico to engage Native audiences is very much a part of the company’s vision under Gleason’s leadership. Francis, who is the CEO/publisher of Native Realities Press, which produces indigenous comic books, is focusing his board participation on networking relationships to create an abundance of audience support in New Mexico’s most populous city.

“This is not Orlando, it’s Albuquerque, which should be the hub for this kind of work,” he said. “This is where we should be represented. Natives comprise 10 percent of the state’s population, and that level of support would be a game changer.”

Francis celebrates the current resurgence of interest in the work of Native theatre artists, but as a watchful observer of American pop culture, he said he’s seen these cycles come and go—one in the 1970s, another in the ’90s.

“It’s still at a fragile place,” he said about the current moment. “The press tends to gravitate around the same names, but excellent Native actors and playwrights are popping up all over the place.”

The cast of Two Worlds’ “Dancing With Fire.” (Photo by Kim Gleason)

Places like Mexican Springs, N.M., a Navajo community north of Gallup, population 1200, that playwright Jay Muskett calls home—a place he’s fled and returned to, a muse of a place that stirs his imagination like no other he’s found so far. Since 2013 Muskett has lived on his reservation in a hogan, writing every day, composing dozens of plays.

“Playwriting has saved my life,” he said. “It filled the hole I had always felt. It connected me back to my own culture. It helped me put two and two together. I finally understood why ceremony and performance are still important, especially being Native American.”

Like Eskeets, Muskett acknowledges the trauma of his people and lives with a sense of responsibility to tell their stories.

“There’s a lot of trauma on the rez, and people don’t really have the outlet to get things off their chest,” he explained. “In my writing, I don’t steer away from the bad things that happen to people.”

As Gleason put it, “We don’t have to pretend.”

For all its willingness to face uncomfortable truths, Two Worlds also loves to present fantastical works featuring zombies and other chimerical beings. In response to a recent call for 10-minute plays centered on the theme of Blue Corn, one submission was a sci-fi script, a delightful surprise.

“Plays were submitted by writers with six years of professional experience to no experience,” Gleason said. “We’re gearing up to bring on the new generation.”

In August Two Worlds will present a staged reading festival of three full-length plays, to be directed by film directors who want the chance to direct for the theatre. “They can find it to be a little intimidating—there are no second takes,” said Gleason, clearly relishing the differences between the two worlds of theatre and film.

She’s also hoping to stage a Native/Hispanic Romeo and Juliet and is keen to find ways to work with the increasing number of Native playwrights who are now approaching Two Worlds to stage their work. A black box features prominently on her near-term wish list, but her ultimate dream is a fully professional Equity theatre. Toward that aim, she’s been building her business skills and seeking resources to move forward, including attracting a strong, skilled board who wants nothing more than to help take her where she wants to go.

Lee Francis sees a bright future for Two Worlds under Gleason’s leadership.

“Our audiences aren’t coming because it’s an an exotic version of Native life; our shows are neither niche, nor novelties,” he said. “They’re coming because it’s good theatre, because they’ll experience solid performances, and engage in theatre that is not predicated on Western ideals for engagement.”

Like so much in Native country, progress is a marathon, not a sprint.

“I push little by little, year by year; we’ve been planting the seeds and people have been helping us grow more,” said Gleason, her hands resting lightly on her middle. “It takes so much energy, so much passion and dedication to see yourself fail and fail and fail. It’s only pushed me harder to make us exist. When doors keep shutting on us, I tell myself there’s going to be that one door that will open.

“It’s been so hard at times, there have been moments when I wanted to walk away. But then I’ll come out from backstage, and some woman will have tears in her eyes, our show affected her so much, so personally. That opens my eyes anew, changes my perspective of what I can do towards making a change for my community, which I’ve always wanted to do. Sometimes you have to sacrifice to keep that hope alive, because maybe that’s all they have.”