UC Berkeley student Drew Woodson talks Native representation, ‘colonial demons’ in his play ‘Your Friend, Jay Silverheels’

Drew Woodson/Courtesy

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Growing up Western Shoshone in a rural Nevadan town, it wasn’t exactly easy for Drew Woodson to break into acting. Now, he is a fifth-year theater and performance studies major at UC Berkeley, an actor who’s been in multiple professional productions and the playwright of his very own work, “Your Friend, Jay Silverheels.” Last Wednesday, Woodson sat down with The Daily Californian to discuss the play, which was performed as a staged reading Dec. 5, in addition to his personal experiences as an actor. 

Beyond a few “side projects,” as he called them, at high schools, Woodson didn’t have his first real acting experience until he went off to college. Even then, his theatrical debut was somewhat atypical. “I auditioned for everything my freshman year. I didn’t get in,” he explained. “So, I went out to this theater called Altarena Playhouse in Alameda. It’s a little tiny regional theater company but they’ve been around for about 80 years. … I got hired for three different shows right off the bat. It was a big leap into the world of acting.” But for Woodson, this sudden plunge was exactly what he needed to know that he could make it in the professional world, as long as he kept working hard for it. “You just have to have the perseverance to do it,” he said. 

And persevere he certainly did. By his junior year, Woodson was already working on his first original script, which he began after enrolling in a playwriting class with UC Berkeley professor Philip Gotanda. Two years and countless revisions later, his work will soon be put on as a full production. But Woodson was quick to acknowledge that the writing process didn’t always come naturally. “There would be times when I would have to take a break for months,” he confessed. “I got to a point where I had written it completely. I had finished the story, I finished the arc … everything made sense. And I didn’t like it at all. So, I scrapped all of it and I rewrote it from scratch.” 

Woodson also took a moment to acknowledge the influential mentorship of Gotanda, who has continued to play an active role in Woodson’s playwriting process with his advice and encouragement. “He’s been my biggest support in terms of getting this play to where it is now,” Woodson said. 

The current version of the play, as was read Thursday, follows three Native actors as they reckon with the problematic legacy of Native representation in the media. “It’s about this Native actor working in the Bay Area in the present day, Kevin Sylver, who is cast in this play called ‘Smokes and Suede Fringe Jackets,’ ” Woodson explained. “(The play) is written and directed by this white auteur older director, who’s been working in the Bay Area for a long time. While he’s there, he meets Sarah Lyttle, another Native actress… as well as James Pine.”

“Everybody has their own secrets,” he continued. “Kevin has a past that he’s trying to run away from, as well as — he’s been having these nightmares, these dreams of what I like to call ‘colonial demons.’ … They’re trying to navigate systems of power that are not meant for them.”

And when it comes to the world of the theater, UC Berkeley may have a few of its own “colonial demons” to contend with. Woodson spoke about an incident that occurred in 2012 when the theater, dance, and performance studies department, or TDPS, staged a controversial play. “(The department) put on a play called “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi,’” Woodson explained. “Ishi was a Native man who long, long ago was ‘discovered,’ quotation marks, by (Alfred) Kroeber and then brought to campus. He was basically forced into an ethnographic zoo, where people would study him and the things that he made.” At the time, the production was met with a quick response from the Native community for its portrayal of Ishi.  

Ultimately, incidents like these made Woodson all the more resolved to have his own voice heard. In fact, he cites “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi” as one of the reasons why he began writing a play about Native representation in the first place. “One of the things I realized working in the (TDPS) department was that if you wanted to have Native stories be told, you would have to do it yourself,” he said. 

In the end, he did. He hopes everyone who gets a chance to engage with his work walks away with something to think about. “If (audiences) have a lot to think and say about it, then I’ll know that I’ve done something that’s worth reading,” Woodson said.

Contact Lauren Sheehan-Clark at [email protected].