Being Chumash in today’s world must be a whirlwind experience, with vibrant creation stories that have survived thousands of years, ethnographic data describing near-idyllic life before the Europeans, historical documents revealing how their world then changed forever, and a contemporary need to search for personal meaning amid it all. This weekend, all of those facets will coalesce onstage at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where the public debut of the play Maria takes over the Fleischmann Auditorium stage for two performances on Sunday, November 4.
The play is based on the life, tales, and songs of Maria Solares, the Chumash woman who was born in 1842 and passed along everything she knew to anthropologist J.P. Harrington, thereby preserving much of the traditional culture and making possible the ongoing rebirth of the Samala language. Inspired as a teenager by a Cherokee play about that tribe’s Trail of Tears, Nakia Zavalla, a Solares descendant and cultural director for the Santa Ynez tribe, had long dreamed of turning her ancestor’s work into a play to coincide with the annual celebration of Solares’s April 15 birthday. “Every year we think of creative ways to honor her,” said Zavalla. “I just could never find the right person to write the play or direct.”
Then along came Central Coast theater veteran Wendy-Marie Foerster, who had worked with Chumash themes before. Armed with a recent discovery of some of Harrington’s lost notes, Foerster and Zavalla hatched a plan. “She would choose which stories were important to tell,” said Foerster, “and I would find a way to link them together so it had a dramatic structure.” The result is a theatrical mix of old stories about Coyote, Thunder, and Fog; historical incidents in the life of Solares and her relationship with Harrington; and the fictional protagonist, a 21st-century Chumash woman looking for a connection to her roots. “It plays on the three worlds,” said Foerster.
The play is only about an hour — though they are working to expand it to 90 minutes for a Santa Ynez performance next spring — and the cast is small, with only 10 actors for this weekend’s shows. But the majority of those are Chumash people — not professional actors — which gives the play even more emotional and spiritual power. “What’s really important about this play is that we have tribal people playing their great-great-grandmother, so the words they are saying aren’t just words that Wendy made up,” emphasized Zavalla. “This is dialogue that has been recorded, and it’s really old. You know the things you’re saying are the things that your ancestors actually spoke. That’s what makes it even more meaningful.”
Because of that, the tribe’s council of elders has thrown its full weight behind the project, and it’s inspiring all of the living Chumash generations. Said Zavalla, “What we’re doing is kind of magical.”
Maria takes the stage of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Fleishmann Auditorium on Sunday, November 4, at 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $1 for kids, $10 for members, and $12 otherwise. Call 805-682-4711 or see sbnature.org/tickets.