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The Spotlight: Food and family secrets in 'The Frybread Queen' at the Autry National Center

March 9, 2011 |  6:00 am

Ghosts. Secrets. Self-rising flour. Native American tradition clashes with modern life — in and out of the kitchen — in Carolyn Dunn’s new play, “The Frybread Queen,” opening Saturday at the Autry National Center as a production of Native Voices at the Autry.

Dunn (Muskogee Creek, Cherokee), a playwright, poet and San Francisco State University professor, talks about putting food and family on stage. 

NV FryBreadQueen-123What is fry bread?

It’s basically the pizza of Native Americans.  The modern version comes out of powwow culture: You’ll see Indian taco booths, or Navajo tacos — they think they invented everything! It’s a staple. You serve it with beans, meat and cheese as a meal, or sprinkle it with powdered sugar. 

But there’s a history: Much of the government food commodities given to Natives were substandard. The flour often had bugs in it — my husband remembers his mother picking out weevils with her fingernails. So women took to making fry bread. It killed the germs. Fry bread originally represented colonization. Now it’s become a cultural identifier. 

How does fry bread figure in the play?

When the play opens, the matriarch, a full-blood Navajo, is making fry bread. The daughter-in-law comes in with groceries and the mother says, Did you get “your” flour? The teasing starts right away.  Underneath, of course, there’s a deeper question: Who is a good mother? Who is not? 

The four female characters are all dealing with the death of the mother’s son, who was separated from his wife. There’s also a generational and cultural gap: The wives are from other tribes. They’ve come into this Navajo family where things have been done a certain way. There’s tremendous tension. There are secrets. It’s very explosive. All the men are offstage; the women are the center of the play.

You give each character a “fry bread monologue.”

The play’s three adult women are competing to be the fry bread queen. Their monologues live outside of the action; they serve as each woman’s chance to plead her case. Why her culture is the best. Why her fry bread is the best.

How’s yours?

I’ve been told my fry bread is pretty darn good. One of the fry bread monologues is my recipe, but I’m not going to tell you which one.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

Through March 27 at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center.

Photo: Jane Lind, left, and Lily Gladstone at the 2010 developmental production of "The Frybread Queen." Lind will reprise her role for the 2011 world premiere presented by Native Voices at the Autry. Credit: Terry Cyr.

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