Mills: “Peerless”, a “dark comedy,” left me unamused

Kadin Mills, Columnist

The Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance first flagged Jiehae Park’s “Peerless” when it appeared on our radar back in January. At the time, I was angrily writing emails to Northwestern Dining from my room in 1835 Hinman. I quickly set my work aside, got my hands on the script and met with other members of NAISA leadership to discuss the frustrating news.

In 2020, Aaron Golding, a Seneca man and assistant director of Multicultural Student Affairs, recommended the show not go on. Because of COVID-19, the show was canceled and the Native community prevailed. You can imagine the conversation we had when we found out the show was once again planned, and we would not be consulted before it opened on Feb. 18.

After a poorly pronounced land acknowledgment, “Peerless” hit the stage at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts with a diverse cast of just five main actors and actresses. Characters M and L are “double minorities,” being Asian women. A modern twist on “Macbeth” (M, L and D corresponding to the characters in the original), M and L go on a rampage to take back their future, killing for what they believe is rightfully theirs: a spot at “The College.” 

D’s story of identity is a complicated one. In the show, he has a vision of his great-great-grandfather and later discovers he has Indigenous roots through his biological dad. D goes on to become an enrolled citizen and gets a coveted spot at “The College,” the spot the girls are dead-set on. When the twins murder D with a tree nut, he appears in M’s dreams wearing a headdress. The connection to Shakesphere is refreshing, but the connection between this dream sequence and Native culture is a thin one.  

Critics and reviews of this show have heralded it for breaking down the complex stereotypes around not only Asian identity, but also Native identity. Lydia Heberling, a scholar of American Indian literature and California Polytechnic State University professor, argues that the show tactfully dismisses widespread falsities regarding Native peoples. Heberling praises Park’s use of “Indian humor” in the show and deconstructs the ways in which “Peerless” comments on anti-Indigenous racism. While I don’t disagree with her claim that it is not insensitive, I certainly don’t think it is appropriate either. 

Throughout the show, there are various scenes in which I and other Natives at Saturday’s performance felt angry, upset and disappointed. From the use of a sloppy headdress to the invalidation of D’s identity, this play sends the message that if you’re not fully Native, you’re not Native enough. This is an issue that Indigenous students and faculty are actively combating, white-passing or otherwise. The show also reinforces a dangerous narrative that someone like D could only get into college based on affirmative action.

While the show might have intended to also address issues of racism, stereotypes and blood quantum as it relates to Native people, it was not well-executed. The script lacks the complex understanding of how those systems of oppression are related. It reads as a caricature of the white Native — an identity held by a large portion of Indigenous students in NAISA.

In the wake of the obscenities painted on the Rock last November, “Peerless” at NU is tone-deaf. I am conflicted. The production was wonderful. The actors were great. The sound, the lights, the affect. All spot on. The Wirtz Center could have pulled off “Peerless.” The show may have inherent problems, but I certainly believe there could have been actions taken to mitigate them. But in a community which has already proven its stance on Natives, the execution missed the mark. Native students, enrolled and unenrolled alike, are frustrated. “Peerless” just amplifies the invisibility we feel, especially since the plot mimics the history of oppression in the United States — that is, kill the Native so you can take what is theirs.

I am frustrated no one thought to contact the only undergraduate Native American and Indigenous student organization on campus. I am frustrated that in deciding to move forward with “Peerless,” the casting call did not ask for Native students. 

Heberling states D’s Indigenous identity “gave him a sense of belonging and purpose that he had lacked, a significant success for any Native person.” While I disagree that “Peerless” does a good job of breaking down stereotypes about Native identity, I do agree that D represents a Native kid trying to find himself. He found his lifeline, and here, it happens to be a tribal ID and an epipen. For me, my lifeline was my first piece of Native jewelry.

Kadin Mills is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.