When you think about the white man’s interaction with American Indians over the past 400 years, about all you can do is look at the ground, kick the dirt and whistle nonchalantly. No amount of reparations can make up for it, and no apology can fix it. The first white men here blew it, they passed their policy of blowing it on to their descendants, and they continued to blow it, up to the present day where the U.S. government wants to dump some 40,000 tons of nuclear waste in Goshute territory. So yeah, on the matter of Anglo-Indian relations, stammering for a minute and then changing the subject is the average white person’s only recourse.
But Julie Jensen, Salt Lake Acting Company’s resident playwright, has hammered out a rich, simple drama that attempts to shed light on the plight of the American Indian, specifically the tribes in Utah. Dust Eaters suggests that while the first white settlers here didn’t treat the locals much better than their fellow Caucasians had done elsewhere, they did have an extra twist: Mormon leaders taught that the natives were descendants of Book of Mormon peoples. This led to an attitude that often amounted to flat-out condescension as earnest Latter-day Saints took pity on the poor, benighted savages, having faith that, with Christian assistance, they could one day become a “white and delightsome people”—a scriptural phrase that some believed would be fulfilled literally.
Dust Eaters, directed by David Mong and having its world premiere at SLAC, focuses on four generations of two families—one white and one American Indian—whose histories (and occasionally genealogies, wink wink) are intertwined over the course of 120 years. Despite the sprawling themes and timeline, though, Jensen has kept it manageable. Seven scenes comprise the entire play: each takes place 20 years after the last, each features no more than four characters, and each is set in the same rough-hewn cabin in the desert of western Utah.
At the center is Albertine (LaVonne Rae Andrews), a Goshute woman who is 10 years old when we first meet her, and whose great-granddaughter Maud Moon (also played by Andrews) becomes a central figure in the later scenes. Albertine is in the custody of an embittered Mormon widow named Emma (Joyce Cohen) at the outset, but Emma’s oily, polygamous brother-in-law Wesley (Morgan Lund) takes her away to join his household, thus connecting the two family lines.
Andrews is the show’s most tireless performer, appearing in all seven scenes: as Albertine at four different ages, and as Maud Moon at three. She’s less convincing when she plays younger, but at middle age and above she cuts an imposing figure both as the wounded, taciturn Albertine and as her activist great-granddaughter.
The chameleon-like Morgan Lund impresses, too. In one scene he plays Albertine’s adopted brother Pratt, a Mormon bishop with a good heart and a sincere love for his long-lost “sister”; in the next three, he plays Pratt’s son Enoch, a loud-mouthed, cantankerous cur who couldn’t be more different from Pratt. He is also wonderfully smarmy as Wesley in the first scene.
Ernest David Tsosie III comes on board in the last few scenes as Maud Moon’s alcoholic, suicidal brother Bone, but the underdeveloped character feels like an afterthought. Joyce Cohen, meanwhile, always reliable in any role, plays four different women with admirable strength—though I wonder if she’s a bit too spry as a 70-year-old in her last scene.
History passes around the fringes of the play: the end of polygamy, the Depression, the Korean War. Collages of sound clips heard in the darkness between scenes remind us of the major world events that are occurring while the actors are changing costumes, but it always comes back home to the little cabin and these two families. The play feels both epic and intimate that way, covering ample ground by seeing how it is reflected in the lives of a handful of characters.
DUST EATERS Salt Lake Acting Company 168 W. 500 North, 363-SLAC