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First Stage Play Uses Traditional Indigenous Storytelling In A New Coming-Of-Age Story

The cast of "Copper Horns In Water", made up almost entirely of students from the Indian Community School in Franklin.
Courtesy of First Stage
The cast of "Copper Horns In Water" is made up almost entirely of students from the Indian Community School in Franklin.

Milwaukee’s First Stage Theater has unveiled its first virtual short play in its new Amplify series. The collection of three short plays, all written and directed by BIPOC artists, will debut throughout 2021 and focuses on telling stories that center on a young person’s point of view.

John Edmonds
Ty Defoe grew up performing at First Stage Theater and now his play "Copper Horns In Water" has premiered as part of Amplify, First Stage's BIPOC virtual short play series.

The first play, Copper Horns In Water, was written by Indigenous Wisconsinite Ty Defoe and incorporates traditional Anishinaabe storytelling.

The story’s protagonist North is an underwater creature who has just completed the coming-of-age ritual to receive their copper horns but now needs to learn about their own strength along with the collective power of their friends to save the day.

“I was thinking about North, in particular I was thinking about Wisconsin and I was thinking about the power at which directions are important in life and as a youth, almost like a coming-of-age story,” says DeFoe.

The actors for this performance all come from the Indian Community School. As an alumnus of both the school and First Stage, he says Copper Horns In Water feels like a homecoming.

Growing up acting at First Stage, DeFoe says he incorporated parts of his own Indigenous culture into his performances. More recently, he realized that many of his experiences from youth laid the groundwork for storytelling and performing.

“I think about how stories were happening when I was at ceremony or at the round house or listening to elders speak. Right, it was just a different way of telling them and as an adult now, I’m like ‘Oh, that was theater, I actually was participating in song, dance and storytelling,'” he says.

DeFoe says watching director Johamy Morales lead the young actors from the Indian Community School was both fun and energizing.

“Charging youth with hope, in particular Indigenous youth who are often times, like, overlooked and not even thought about, to have someone be seen and be heard for some of the first times during this process was so invoking and inspiring,” he says.

DeFoe says this play is both meant to entertain younger generations and teach them through cultural traditions.

“People can learn from too these traditions, right, about taking care of the Earth — everyone can relate to that,” he says. “We all drink water, we all need water, and also as a human species we all need water more than the water needs us.”

Copper Horns In Water will be available for free on the First Stage YouTube channel until May 16.

Ben Binversie was a producer with WUWM's Lake Effect program.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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