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Rhiana Yazzie's "Nancy" Explores Complexities of Racial and Ethnic Identity

By Phoebe Farris (Powhatan-Pamunkey)

The Mosaic Theater Company of Washington, D.C., in partnership with New Native Theatre, has produced the play “Nancy,” written by Rhiana Yazzie (Dine/Navajo) and directed by Ken Matt-Martin. Yazzie is a playwright, director, filmmaker, and Artistic Director of New Native Theatre, which she started in 2009 with the purpose of making professional connections between the Minneapolis Twin Cities’ theaters and the urban Native American community. Another of her plays, “The Other Children of the Sun” will premiere at the Kennedy Center in January 2025. Yazzie also directed the U.S. premiere of the opera “Missing,” a story about a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman in 2023. Her first feature film, “A Winter of Love,” was shown at the 2021 Pocahontas Film Festival and is now playing in global film festivals. 

“Nancy” is a sequel to one of Yazzie’s earlier works, “Queen Cleopatre and Princess Pocahontas.” “Nancy” is set in 1985 in Washington, D.C., and focuses on two women trying to navigate their careers and personal lives. First Lady Nancy Reagan (played by Lynn Hawley) is in the White House managing President Reagan’s policies according to astrological predictions, while Esmeralda (played by Anaseini Katoa (Tongan)), a Navajo mother, is trying to advocate for Native American economic opportunities via Native American women-owned businesses. Intersecting these two worlds is Nancy Reagan’s claim to be a descendant of the historic Virginia Indigenous woman, Pocahontas (Pamunkey).


'Anaseini Katoa (Tongan) as Esmeralda and Lynn Hawley as Nancy Reagan. Photo by Chris Banks. Directed by Ken-Matt Martin, Set design by Mischa Kachman, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka, Props Design by Chelsea Dean and Projections Design by Hailey LaRoe.


The other cast members are Regina Aquino (Filipino American), Michael Kevin Darnall, Derek Garza (Wichita/Comanche/Latino), Jen Olivares (Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation), and Tenley Stitzer. 

The complexities of racial and ethnic identity are explored in scenes throughout the play. One particularly resonant scene involves a dialogue between Esmeralda and Joey (played by Jen Olivares), a fair-skinned Norwegian woman of Hopi descent, as they discuss who is the best person to advocate for woman-owned Indigenous businesses. Esmeralda says, “No one sees me; I am invisible,” and Joey counters, “It is useful to have someone who looks like me be the Indian,” in regard to applying for business loans. This dialogue leads to a discussion of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act of Virginia forbidding interracial marriages with the exception of descendants of Pocahontas, who were classified as white and allowed to marry other white people. 


'Anaseini Katoa (Tongan) as Esmeralda, Tenley Stitzer as Jacqueline and Derek Garza as Whaley. Photo by Chris Banks.

A striking part of the stage dressing is a recreation of a Navajo sand painting suspended above the stage. Used in healing ceremonies, these grains of colored sand are considered dynamic, living, spiritual entities, sacred beings that give strength to sick people while absorbing their illness. After the ceremony is completed, the painting is traditionally destroyed by the medicine man due to its absorption of toxicity. Senior Artistic Producer for New Native Theatre, Charli Fool Bear, explained, “For that reason, many recreations of sand paintings are not exact replicas of the traditional design used in this ceremony.” 


Michael Kevin Darnell as Ed and Jen Olivares. Photo by Chris Banks.

Another unique aspect of the production is the use of a company Elder, Rose Powhatan (Pamunkey/Tauxenent descent). “I found my role as the Elder of the production to be mutually beneficial to Mosaic’s staff, cast members, and myself since I’m a seasoned wisdom keeper, as well as an activist/advocate for the arts, social justice, voting rights, and both local and global community Indigenous and gender rights,” she commented.

“Nancy” is a humorous reflection on the Reagan years and their political impact on Indian country. Tough issues such as mining on Native lands, identity politics, and race and gender-based discrimination are explored in a balanced way that leaves the audience feeling optimistic, yet aware of the reality that these issues are still hurting us and require our continuing activism for Indigenous rights.

L-R: Playwright Rhiana Yazzie (Dine/Navajo) with Rose Powhatan (Pamunkey/Tauxenent), the Company Elder. Photo by Phoebe Farris.


The Atlas Performing Arts Center stands on the traditional land of the Nacotchtank people and neighbors the ancestral lands of the Piscataway and Pamunkey peoples. This acknowledgment is in tribute to those peoples, past and present.

--Phoebe Mills Farris, Ph.D. (Powhatan-Pamunkey) is a Purdue University Professor emerita, photographer, and freelance art critic. 


Top photo: 'Anaseini Katoa as Esmeralda and Lynn Hawley as Nancy Reagan. Photo by Chris Banks.