Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Folger Shakespeare Theatre are partnering on a unique production about our quest to find ourselves amid our pasts and a changing world.
Madeline Sayet’s “Where We Belong” is available for streaming now through July 11.
“What does it mean to exist in a globalized context?” Sayet told WTOP. “Grappling with that led me to write this piece, which was never supposed to be a play, it was me trying to process what it meant to be caught up in the sky. My Mohegan name means ‘blackbird’ … my tribe’s name means ‘wolf people’ … so contrast that with being in the sky.”
Sayet plays herself, a Mohegan playwright who travels to England to study Shakespeare, only to find a country refusing to acknowledge its history of colonialism amid Brexit.
“It’s both about my journey to England to pursue my Ph.D. in Shakespeare and how it mirrors my Mohegan ancestors’ diplomatic missions to England in service of our people in the 1700s,” Sayet said. “At the same time, it’s also a story of a wolf who becomes a bird — and deals with the intersections of Shakespeare, languages and colonialism.”
Time is shattered as we essentially jump around in her subconscious.
“The piece folds in upon itself in terms of time and consciousness,” Sayet said. “The piece actually starts the day after Brexit in the UK, then it jumps back and forth in time because the predominant viewpoint was occurring in 2016, but when I wrote it in 2018, I was bringing together different moments in time from my own journey and my ancestors.”
At first, she leaves her native land to study abroad, sparking a certain homesickness.
“I was raised on the traditional lands of my people, the Mohegan in Connecticut; my mom is the medicine woman in our tribe,” Sayet said. “The piece is really documenting the tension between home and England. When I first moved back from England in 2018 … I really needed to be around more native people again, because I felt very isolated.”
However, coming home brought a complicated new feeling she had never felt.
“After spending so much time flying in the sky from place to place, my feet didn’t feel rooted when I landed,” Sayet said. “Up until then, whenever I’d come home, I could feel my feet settle in the earth all the way down where my ancestors were for thousands of years. So I started writing this piece to process whether missing England made me a traitor.”
How does Shakespeare factor into this very personal journey?
“I grew up on a combination of traditional Mohegan stories and Shakespeare,” Sayet said. “The first play I ever directed was ‘The Tempest,’ centering on what would happen if Caliban got his language back. I felt ‘The Tempest’ was our people’s only representation in the canon … I wanted to prove that Shakespeare was on our side against colonialism.”
Director Mei Ann Teo finds visual ways to express these themes.
“There is this being torn between the earth and the sky, so there are structural elements within the set design that really embrace those spaces,” Sayet said. “There are different things being done stylistically with light … to represent the construction of borders.”
It’s all captured on film by Director of Photography Jon Burklund.
“There’s a really a beautiful moment toward the end where you’re able to see the world from my perspective in the sky,” Sayet said. “Even though it’s a filmed theater production, Mei Ann and Jon were able (to) make this feel more like a film … actually, in the epilogue, we talk about the pandemic, and the camera pans around to see the empty audience.”