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A humorous take on a serious topic – American Indian history
Humor is uniquely human. It builds bonds, defuses tension, boosts innovation, and bolsters resilience. In a bold manifestation of the power of humor, McCarter Theater’s production of “Between Two Knees” offers stories from Native American Indian history that helps us to lean in, not look away.
Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas on the TED stage
Why humor is a superpower you shouldn’t ignore
Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas wrote a wonderful, well-researched book called Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and in Life in 2021, and boy we needed it then! We still need it now! You can watch their TED talk about the book (it earned major accolades!) here. You can also drop in on our Fireside Chat at this link.
What Jennifer and Naomi found in their research is that humor helps leaders motivate and inspire people. It shortens the path to connection. People are willing to bond more with people when they find humor together. It leads people to look at the world in a different way.
And yet, we’re suffering from a “humor deficit” – less smiling, laughing, giggling and general finding the funny in the world around us from pretty much the minute we hit the workforce until we’re in our 80’s. Unfortunately, the average human lifespan tops out at around 78 years old. So, they have been on a mission to bring humor back into everyday life, especially at work.
One really important effect of humor is to break down barriers. If we can laugh at something, even if it is at our own expense, we are much less likely to turn away or turn it off, and are much more receptive to taking in information, even if it is uncomfortable. Humor creates bridges between people.
In the spirit of their work, let me introduce you to an example!
Which brings me to Princeton’s McCarter Theater production of “Between Two Knees”
Who in their right minds would write a comedy, with music, about genocide?
Derek Garza, Shaun Taylor-Corbett and Shyla Lefner in BETWEEN TWO KNEES by the 1491’s, directed by Eric Ting – McCarter Theater Jan 31-Feb 12 2023. Photo © T. Charles Erickson
Apparently, the 1491s. Let me lay out the premise here – an Indian written, Indian produced and mostly Indian cast play is going to lay out the often-grisly history of Native Americans to mostly White audiences and hopes to make it appeal? How does that idea get past the instant-rejection machine?
It did, as part of Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen’s compelling vision for how such a play can start important conversations. As she says, McCarter is nearly 100 years old, and this is the first time a play featuring an American Indian theme has been produced there. As director Eric Ting put it in his opening night speech, “this isn’t a play – it’s a dare!”
The play originally premiered at a sold-out run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It so impressed historian Kliph Nesteroff that he wrote about it in his book We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy. As he says, "The 1491's have managed to take the least amusing subject matter imaginable and turn it into a relentless joke-driven narrative."
The writing is full of Saturday Night Live style snark, with many references to pop culture. The acting was amazing – and McCarter’s physical stage builds are rapidly becoming legendary in the regional theater world (kudos to your production team, Dixie Uffelman).
It’s a musical, in that it has musical numbers, but there is plenty of dialogue and story. It moves fast – you must stay on your toes to figure out which part of the story you’re in.
It’s heartbreaking in the touching details of human loss. Children, kidnapped from their homes. Young men, trained as warriors, sent to the military to meet their fates. Trying to build a future in a situation totally stacked against them. And at the same time, finding a humorous way of presenting situations so that you are one moment sitting with tears in your eyes and in the next laughing! Such a rollercoaster.
In an opening “game,” a Wheel of Fortune style spinner is introduced and we get to name … um … massacres. Most of which nobody in the audience had any clue about. Until we get to “Wounded Knee” which many people only know about because of the book (and subsequent film) Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
While the play does a fair bit of space/time continuum shuffling, it is loosely organized around the tale of a couple who met at one of the infamous Indian Boarding Schools, often run by the Catholic Church, whose intention was to forcibly assimilate children into White society. It follows them through love and loss and a lot of unexpected twists and turns. In addition to being both sad at times and howlingly funny, it is also informative. It reveals facts that certainly didn’t make it into my history books.
Comedy as social critique
The play is an excellent example of how comedy has been used throughout history to speak essential truths even when powerful interests would rather not hear them. We can all agree on the value of a good laugh. As Jennifer and Naomi point out in their TED talk, laughing causes our brains to release a cocktail of hormones. There are endorphins, the magic of the “runner’s high.” Then there’s dopamine, associated with all kinds of pleasures including sex. And it reduces cortisol, making you feel calmer. In short, as they point out, it’s like exercising, meditating and having sex, all at the same time!
Laughter can also make audiences more open to hearing messages they might normally choose to ignore. It can evoke feelings rather than simple understanding of facts. And it can lead people to take action. Indeed, American University’s Caty Borum Chattoo has explored the role humor can play in social change in her project The Laughter Effect which tells humorous stories about important things.
Comedy as resistance: To quote from the program for “Between Two Knees”
“Good comedy is inherently dangerous. It is challenging; it will cause discomfort or offense to make its point. What we are reclaiming here is the idea of comedy as resistance. When we look at Aristophanes’ Lysistrata or Moliere’s Tartuffe or jump into the movies, like Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor’s Blazing Saddles, we can see how comedy has been used to skewer warmongers or religious hypocrites or racism or so many other things worthy of skewering. The 1491’s entered this continuum with their sketch work and through this play and their various television projects, including the wildly successful Reservation Dogs. These works, and Between Two Knees, in particular, are a reclamation.
It's not that comedy can’t simply be fun, but Between Two Knees is a version of comedy that takes back power which has been lost or stolen.”
Jennifer and Naomi’s web site has lots of other resources.
Perhaps in polarized and angry times, humor can help us figure a way forward.
As Tim Brown, former Chair of IDEO and author of Change By Design puts it, “Business is serious and the world is serious, especially right now. That means we need the ideas described in Humor, Seriously even more than ever. Not because levity and humor are ways to relieve the pressure of serious times, although they are, but because they unlock our humanity in the moments where we most need it.”