What We Talk About when we Talk About Blood Quantum:

Native American Identity in Jihae Park’s Peerless

Photo by: John McLellan

Photo by: John McLellan


 

“High school. Murder. High stakes. Twins. Ambition.” When asked to describe her production of Jihae Park’s Peerless in five words, director Sara Porkalob offers this tantalizing list in response. Peerless is an astute and innovative (and dark, and hilarious) adaptation of Macbeth that, instead of engaging the politics of monarchy and war, engages the politics of affirmative action in college admissions and the racially-charged angst experienced by minority high school students. The play, firmly anchored in subtly strategic references to Shakespeare’s original script, demonstrates a clear adoration for and nuanced understanding of Macbeth. This is what makes Park’s redeployment of the central themes—ambition, paranoia, and the murderous drive for power—in a contemporary setting with a cast of racially- and ability-marked teenagers so effective.

 Peerless follows twin Asian American sisters, L (Maile Wong) and M (Corrine Magin), and their carefully strategized plan to gain early admission to The College, the unnamed ivy league school with a single affirmative action enrollment slot open each year. Convinced that their racial identity performs a contribution to “geographical diversity” and makes them a “shoe in” for the enrollment slot, they reel in shock when that slot is granted to D (Christopher Quilici), a white-presenting male who is one-sixteenth Native American, instead. Motivated by greedy ambition and a deeply ingrained sense that as model minorities they “deserve everything,” L and M (“L”ady Macbeth and “M”acbeth) subsequently plot murderously to set right a plan gone awry. For this Deconstruct writer, who maintains a deep and abiding love of Shakespeare in spite of (and, in most cases, in tension with) her primary career as a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous literatures, Park’s script and Porkalob’s direction made for a happy unification of two things she just adores.

The racially-based grounds for Shakespearean expressions of jealousy, ambition, and greed are compelling in Park’s adaptation, especially the choice to make the minority recipient of The College’s enrollment slot a white-presenting American Indian male. The script’s attentiveness to the nuances of claiming and expressing an American Indian identity reveals the complex ways in which American cultural assumptions and discourses about minorities and multiethnicity continue to fail to address the specific issues of Indigenous identity and rights. Park’s script contains an astute understanding of the complexity of blood quantum as a colonial narrative that can be wielded to validate or deny Indigeneity, and reveals the problematic ways in which blood quantum has deeply penetrated popular discourses about Native peoples. Park’s script also interrogates the fact that most Americans, especially high school students, simply do not have the language to talk about Indigeneity, constructively or not; L and M, in their frustration with D, are unable critique his Indigeneity as such, and so they insult him the way high schoolers know: by making fun of how he looks. By grounding M and L’s dialogue about D in dominant yet false narratives about Native peoples, Park integrates a critique of these discourses into the play. Ultimately D is allowed to complicate the stereotypes and false assumptions about his Native identity, and the script makes a compelling (and accurate! And hilarious!) assertion that “authentic” Native identity is actually anchored in networks of community and relationship.

When M and L discover that D won the coveted enrollment slot at The College, their rage is grounded in the fact that D presents like a privileged white male and is probably using his “heritage” to strategically get ahead. This raises the problem of blood quantum: that it can be used strategically to some advantage and yet is ultimately a deeply racist, colonial tool designed to deny formal recognition of Indigeneity at the level of the nation-state. The insinuation at the play’s opening is that D is surely capitalizing on the 1/16th Native American heritage to check the minority box on his college admissions application for his own advantage, and that he certainly is not actively “Native American” in any sense of being relationally connected to a family, tribe, or community. By critiquing his “Native Americanness” on the basis of his blood quantum, L and M deploy a specifically colonial and racist discourse about Native American identity against D.

Their vitriol hardly stops there. As M and L continue to shit talk D in the opening minutes of the play, their insults slide from his ancestry to his body. In a sharp, staccatoed exchange the girls begin name calling, a very high school thing to do. As they whine about being “usurped by a fat fuck” with a “fat fugly veiny face,” the ease with which they turn to fat- and body-shaming demonstrates the impossibility, at the high school level, of talking about American Indian identity, even in slanderous terms (not that this is impossible generally, see @washingtonredskins or @clevelandindians for real life, contemporary examples of racial slurs against Indigenous peoples). But, for two high school girls, it is impossible to find the language with which to talk (even critically) about D’s “Nativeness,” so they turn to body shaming, a more accessible discourse in high school. 

D’s character, however, deconstructs these racial narratives about American Indian identity and ancestry. Park gives D more soliloquies and the audience an opportunity to know him better than any other character in the play. Through the course of the play we learn that D was depressed, that he attempted suicide at the end of the last school year, and that by reconnecting with his biological father he discovered his connection to his Native American family. In his suicide attempt he had a vision of his great-great grandfather, an Indian chief, who told him “only sissies commit suicide” and that there’s “a special Native American hell for fat baby chickens who try to kill themselves.” (Park is not being insensitive here: “Indian humor” is often used as a mechanism for moving beyond being victims of the tragic realities of settler colonialism. The rates of poverty and suicide in Native communities are sky high.) Perhaps the most hyperbolic, stereotype-driven moment of the play, this vision is pivotal because it connects D to his ancestors and helps him turn his life around. The event conveys the importance of and necessary struggle to survive as American Indian peoples: the comic caricature-nature of the great- great- grandfather/Indian chief vision and the deeply real meaning it conveys in the play applies pressure to dominant assumptions about American Indians. That the stereotype (the ancestral Indian chief we’re all supposed to be descended from) facilitates authentic connection demands that the characters and audience reexamine their own racial stereotypes and think twice before assuming what’s true. Contrary to basing his claim to Indigeneity on blood quantum, D has established authentic relational connections and, in the process, although secondary to the importance of finding a community, received his tribal ID. Becoming an enrolled member of most tribes often depends on a family’s willingness to identify you, to claim you as an ancestor. Sometimes it has to do with blood quantum, but each tribe is different and in general, tribal belonging is more dependent on relationship networks than on blood quantum.

Before his death, D reveals that he did not capitalize on his blood quantum, and he did not write a sappy admission essay about his Native identity. He wrote it about going to Jenny Craig with his mom, suggesting that body shame did contribute to his perceived lack of self-worth, making L and M’s fat-shaming dialogue unbearably harsh. At this revelation the audience is wholly convinced that he deserves to live. His Native identity gave him a sense of belonging and purpose that he had lacked, a significant success for any Native person. This is what makes his death an actual Shakespearean tragedy: D’s story is a story of survivance (a term that combines the concepts of “survival” and “resistance”). After generations of attempts to eradicate or assimilate Native peoples in the United States, here is a young man who has finally found connection and a sense of purpose in his Native identity and is on the path to higher education, and he’s killed by two girls with a monomaniacal plan. The actual worst.

Peerless is incredibly insightful and sensitive to the complexity of expressing and representing Indigeneity in contemporary Western contexts. Park props up popular but false narratives about Indigenous identity in discourses about minority rights and access, but refuses to legitimate them, and allows them to be torn down in order to reconstruct the audience’s understanding of Indigenous identity on relationship and community.

While the script succeeds at capturing the complexity of claiming and expressing Indigeneity, it is less clear whether Porkalob and ArtsWest recognize the powerful decolonial narrative embedded in the play. Certainly in a city like Seattle, which sits on Duwamish lands and is surrounded by the tribal communities of the Salish Sea, and which is home to a significant urban Native population, the potential to center this component of the plot and open up community conversations about how to recognize and talk about Native identities (especially with high schoolers!) is ripe. Regardless, the decolonial power of the script stands on its own two feet and those who are equipped to recognize it in between the Shakespearean allusions will feel deeply rewarded.

  • Peerless Produced by ArtsWest Playhouse 
  • Peerless Written by: Jiehae Park
  • Peerless Directed by: Sara Porkalob 
  • Peerless January 18 - February 11, 2018 performed at ArtsWest Playhouse
  • Review Lead: Lydia Heberling  / Review Team: Becs Richards, Jenny Van Houdt, Olivia Jean Hernández, Emily George