Play chronicles Navajo culture and history

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SHIPROCK — Tsé Bit A'í Middle School sixth-grader Kaleah Redshirt listened to directions for moving her arms while rehearsing Tuesday for a play she and her classmates are performing this week at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center here.

"Nihaa Dahne' — Our Story" is a shadow play produced and performed by 24 students in the gifted program at the middle school. A shadow play is a form of storytelling that uses cut-out figures that are held between a source of light and a screen.

The play chronicles Navajo culture and history, as well as focusing on social issues affecting Navajo society and the people's resiliency and hope for the future.

For the production, the students built 273 props from cardboard to cover 19 scenes that depict scenery such as the Shiprock pinnacle and Spider Rock, and historical moments like the Long Walk, the signing of the Treaty of 1868 and the Navajo Code Talkers.

Another key component to a shadow play is silence. To achieve that effect, students soften their footsteps by wearing socks on stage.

"Instead of a play with dialogue, you're more focused on movement," director and eighth-grader Felicia Allan said before the group's first performance Tuesday evening.

While the actors practiced behind the large screen, eighth-grader Hana Walter and seventh-grader Autumn Littlehat sat on the left side of the stage and took turns reading the script.

"I think it's nice because we're welcoming the community of Shiprock," Walter said about the play.

"It's our culture and not many children our age, or even adults, know what happened to us," she added.

Virginia Beyale is the gifted program teacher at the middle school.

"I think once they knew the concept of the play and the reasoning behind it, I think they realized how important it is," Beyale said.

Eighth-grader Jared Mose worked with director Allan to write the script, which was based on previous versions of the play.

In the scene involving "new monsters" — a term used to describe issues that affect the Navajo people today, including diseases, drugs, alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual abuse — the actors demonstrate optimism by carrying large cut-outs that bear words like "love" and "hope" across the stage.

"It shows that people have hope and they can get help by love," Mose said about the scene.

Beyale said as a teacher, it is rewarding to watch her students take pride in and value the process of bringing the play to the community.

The final performance is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center. Doors open at 6 p.m., and admission is free.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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