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Having done research on the subject of myth, I’m not surprised to learn from Trey Graham’s review (“Coyote Ugly,” 3/16) that the Arena Stage mixed-media show Coyote Builds North America is problematic. (By the way, that is only the subtitle of Barry Lopez’s original 1977 collection of Coyote stories. I suppose using the actual title, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter, would create problems in advertising the production.)
I haven’t seen the show, but there are always problems of finding the right balance when members of a dominant culture adapt something from their supposed inferiors. Usually, it is only when the latter learn the former’s values and compose something that may appeal to them that it works. Think: Brahms dabbled in folding East European folk tunes into his classical compositions, but it took natives like Dvorùák and Bartók to really do something with the idea. Or suppose the current film Chunhyang, which builds the pansori form into its structure, had been directed by a Westerner or even a Japanese rather than a Korean.
The real problem with adapting Coyote is that in the original Native American cultures where he arose, unlike ours, the categories of humor and gravity were not seen as mutually exclusive: Both were present in the form. (One can make cartoons out of the “Trickster” archetype represented by Coyote or West Africa’s Ananse the Spider, but more is missing in Bugs Bunny than the phallicism that has been excised for family viewing.) For all his antics, the tales about Coyote were seen as deadly serious, and, as late as the 20th century, you could find old-timers who would swear that telling the stories out of context would disrupt the course of the universe. That feeling can’t be captured by having musicians “strip their tuxedos off and frolic about in leotards,” as Graham tells us happens at Arena.
If we don’t completely destroy their culture first, someday Plains Indians who have also graduated from Juilliard or Duke Ellington will compose and direct a modern music or dance form featuring Coyote, and that we will want to see.