Belief Born Again: Julie Cajune takes one-woman play to NYC
“Belief: Lives and Stories of Montana’s Salish Women,” a one-woman show featuring Salish tribal member, cultural historian and actress Julie Cajune, was selected for a one-week run Sept. 18-22 at the historic Gene Frankel Theatre in New York City.
The play draws from Cajune’s personal life experiences and the true stories of generations of the women in her family living on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Northwest Montana. The stories told in “Belief” offer a rare opportunity for audiences to participate in a genuine cultural exchange, and to gain insight into the daily lives of people in a Native American community as they grapple with the human condition, as well as with the broader historical legacies and events of our time.
The play premiered in December 2012 at the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts, and went on to Missoula, Bozeman and Dillon in Cajune’s home state. She performed in Honolulu, HI, Salamanca, Spain, and, in 2016, Scotland, where the historic connection between the Highland Clans and the Native people of Montana came full circle.
“We were hosted by Duncan MacInnes on the Isle of Skye at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college,” recalls Cajune. It was an opportunity that came about through her connection with Scotish historian James Hunter.
“We thought ‘Belief’ had run its course,” says Cajune. “But life has many surprises.”
The New York performance started with her daughter’s vision. “She called me and told me that she had this vivid dream of us in a large city walking down the street and seeing a poster for ‘Belief.’”
Cajune forgot about the dream until a friend who was living in New York City dropped by for a visit, was intrigued with “Belief,” and suggested Cajune bring the play to New York.
“At that exact moment, I remembered Sarah’s dream and so I said OK, but how would I go about even finding a space to host me?”
Cajune notes that not only was she an unknown in the Big Apple, but so are Native people in general, and her tribal nation in particular. Her friend, however, was connected with the arts community in Lower Manhattan and put her in touch with Gail Thacker from the Gene Frankel Theatre – a small nonprofit, with no sponsorship or funding capacity.
“That’s how this started,” says Cajune. “Then I had to raise funds to pay for all of the expenses.”
She reached out to friends and family, who responded with modest donations. One was made in memory of her “sister-cousin Gyda Swaney,” who died in July, and the first performance was dedicated to her. Finally, Peter Buffet’s NoVo Foundation stepped forward and funded the project, with the money arriving just two days before the crew left for New York.
Flutist Gary Stroutsos, pianist David Lanz and violinist Swil Kanim created the play’s original music score. Stroutsos funded his own way to New York City, crafted new studio work for the show with musicians David Revelli, Mark Fauver and Tony Garone, and performed on stage with Cajune.
“All of this was done gratis,” she says. “On a wing and a prayer people have lifted the project with remarkable and loving gifts.
“So here we are,” she adds, “the day before our first rehearsal in the theater, heading out to the copy store with the script and then a walk to the Brooklyn Bridge.”
“I believe we are standing in a state of grace to be here. Regardless of the size of the audience, I believe there is someone here meant to hear one of these stories, and for that it is worth the time and effort.”
Cajune’s mixed heritage is a direct consequence of the collision of people and cultures. “I am the sum of many stories from many places,” she explains. “My mother was Salish, Nez Perce, Scots and Irish. My father was Chippewa and French. These different stories and places all occupy memory and space inside of me, but the largest part of my identity is Salish and it is my Salish homeland that holds my affection. It is where I grew up and live today.”
“Belief” originated seven years ago as an idea to weave music, story and poetry into a theatre piece that would portray the lived experiences of Native women. The play was written by Cajune and poet Jennifer Finley, and directed by Linda Grinde.
“When Julie came to me with the idea for an evening of theatre, she had no intention of telling personal stories,” says Grinde, an experienced actor and director. “I explained how a theatre piece might be shaped and suggested that we collect the stories she wanted to use and allow a theme to emerge.”
“So Julie brought me stories and told me stories too,” recalls Grinde. “She would say, ‘That reminds me of something my Aunt Florence did,’ or ‘that happened to me as a child.’”
Grinde urged her to write some of them down. “She protested that she wasn’t a writer but then she would show up at the next meeting with a well-crafted essay and a big smile. And then Jennifer would write these amazing poems that connected to themes or drew out something powerful and unspoken between the lines.”
By the end of that summer, the three of them went through the narratives and poems. “The words were secular and sacred, sorrowful and hopeful,” says Cajune.
Grinde selected and arranged the pieces, and they were paired with original music into a theatrical structure with the arc of a storyline.
They aptly titled the play “Belief,” says Cajune, because of “the human experience of belief in self, in life and in love. We felt these individual women’s voices offered connections to our shared humanity and could lead us to see that perhaps what connects us is more powerful than what divides us.”
“Belief” is a play with much to say about today’s world, believe its creators. “We enter this world wired for story,” says Cajune.
“From childhood and throughout our life, story is the filter we use to make meaning – to understand who we are. Story informs our identity and our place in the world. Story characterizes our relationship with our self, with others, and with the world. Daily we rely on story to communicate the profound, the humorous, the mundane and the exotic episodes of our lives.”
“The challenge before humankind today,” she adds, “is to find or build the bridge that connects us with one another and with the natural world.”
The New York production was supported, in part by The Salish Institute in St. Ignatius. For more information, visit www.thesalishinstitute.org.
Photo: Julie Cajune rehearses “Belief” with musician Swil Kanim.