Bondo Wyszpolski

Native wisdom

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Playwright Angelo Massino and actor Joseph Runningfox. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Local playwright Angelo Masino has staged several of his own works at the 2nd Story Theatre in Hermosa Beach, including “No Justice, No Peace,” “The Beast,” “The Treehouse,” and “The Runner,” but his newest, “An Italian American Indian,” seems to be on another level altogether. He began writing it while his brother was dying (“He went on a long journey, a year’s journey into death”), and within the same time frame Masino also underwent a marital meltdown. Not surprisingly, then, he says of “An Italian American Indian” that “This is my first adult play, I would almost call it, where I deal with family issues and kids and divorce.”

It didn’t stop there. Masino says he often drank himself to sleep, and we’re not talking about herbal tea. Even so, the guy’s like a prize fighter; he absorbed the punches, staggered, but didn’t collapse. “What I do when I really get crazy is, I write.” But the pen alone didn’t save him. It seems he had some spiritual guidance by way of the great Apache warrior chief Geronimo. As the pieces began to cohere, Joseph Runningfox stepped into the picture.

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“I’m a full-blood from the Pueblo nation,” says Joseph Runningfox, “and they’re along the Rio Grande River. There are 19 villages; one is called Santo Domingo, and that is the one that I participate in. That situation there is very traditional. They watch you when you come into the city… No cell phones, no cameras… That world is completely different than the one I’m in right now.

“During those years of the ‘50s and ‘60s my parents were basically forced into the city [as part of] the assimilation process. Later on, when I was 14-years-old, I was taken out of that family situation and [placed with] a foster family in Utah. My name was changed; I wasn’t to be called an Indian. My hair was cut real short.”

Eleven or twelve years went by, and the young man’s ties with his Native roots were now like very faint drumbeats. But one winter day, when Runningfox was walking through the snow at Brigham Young University, he was noticed by two men who came up and introduced themselves. One of them was Robert Ellis Miller, the Academy Award-winning director of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”

“And he says, ‘Are you Indian?’ After so many years of being away from home I had to…” Runningfox pauses, and says it was a disquieting moment. He puts his hand to his chest. “But you could feel it in there, in the interior. Y-e-a-h,” he draws the word out slowly, “I think I am; yeah. ‘Well, I’m looking for the last wild Indian in America (Miller told him), to put him in a movie called ‘Ishi: The Last of His Tribe.’”

The film, which was released in 1978, takes place early in the 20th century, and has to do with the survival of a young Native American in a white man’s world. Needless to say, the encounter with Miller was life-changing for Joseph Runningfox, and it began what would prove to be a deeper immersion in his original heritage and culture.

“Ishi and I have a special relationship,” he says, “in that this Robert Ellis Miller, who is Jewish, came beyond the Zion curtain into Utah, found this full-blood Native, pulled him out of there, and stuck [him] right back into his Native roots.” The door was opened, and it said, Go home.

The sun always rises

We know him as Geronimo, but his Apache name is Goyahkla (which means “one who yawns”), and that’s what Joseph Runningfox would prefer to use. Apparently, the name Geronimo came about courtesy of the Mexican soldiers who were impressed and perhaps even terrified by the warrior’s prowess in battle. Their appeals for help to Saint Jerome (Jeronimo) went unanswered, for the great warrior probably outlived them all.

After “Ishi: The Last of His Tribe” the young actor landed other roles. One of them, for TNT (Turner Network Television), was as the title character in “Geronimo” (1993).

Several of these roles entailed “channeling Native people in the past,” Runningfox says, “which also re-taught me that I have to always keep in mind about my ancestors. I take it seriously simply because the dead are always with me; in my culture the ancestors are there. They brought me out of Utah. I have a feeling they probably checked up on Robert Ellis Miller.”

How did he find out about this play?

A friend from the Screen Actors Guild got wind of it after Masino made some inquiries. Because of TNT’s “Geronimo,” the friend contacted him and said, “‘Go check this out, Joe.’ And I called up Angelo. He wouldn’t give me an audition, he just said, Get over here and let’s start doing it.” Runningfox laughs. “So that’s how that went.”

But what happened was that Masino sent Runningfox a copy of the script. The playwright was uncertain what the response would be. A couple of tense days went by, with no word one way or the other.

“Whenever you write cross-cultural, you get real nervous,” Masino says. “When I wrote ‘No Justice, No Peace’ I was worried how the Black community was going to react. [Now] I was super-worried about what the Natives were going to say. When he called me back and said he liked it, I wanted to scream ‘Yaaah!’”

This isn’t to say that Runningfox was in complete agreement with everything in the script, particularly with regards to faith. It doesn’t both him so much, he notes, “But it might bother Geronimo. He gets up early in the morning and looks at the sun. Even to this day. In the Native or Apache world, the dead can see the sun rising.”

Masino says that Geronimo generated his play. He took passages from the warrior chief’s memoir, Geronimo: His Own Story, and integrated them into his text. He found Geronimo’s words relevant to his own state of mind, and he put Geronimo’s stories next to his own. “Somehow,” he says, “they connect.”

Runningfox sees the connection as well. “So I get here, and they’ve got him (Geronimo) weaving in and out of an everyday situation that every single one of us are involved in – with family, friends.” What Marco, the central character in Masino’s play, goes through, Geronimo went through as well. “He misses his home, he misses his family; he misses that land. All taken away… It’s not just an Apache situation… It runs right in line with what Goyahkla or Geronimo had to go through; he was fighting for his family. He was going through the losses.”

After he made the movie for TNT, Runningfox says, “I was told by the Apache people [to] go home to your tribe and undo everything that has been done to you.” So he returned to the Pueblos and the medicine man helped him do just that. The latter also said that Geronimo must always be respected, that “he’s always going to be around you,” and that the name of Geronimo will never go away. This is why, whenever there’s a chance to remind people of just who Geronimo was, was and is, Joseph Runningfox will make it a point to do so.

His parents have since passed on, but Runningfox – who lives near Venice – remains rooted with the Pueblo Indians. “I make it home to New Mexico as often as I can. I go home, [and] bring the wholeness back together. Or I stay around creativity to stay whole in the cities.” Back in the village, he says, he’s doing village things, like growing corn. In other words, the message coming out of his tribe and coming out of his heritage, is this simple one: Don’t stray too far from the cornfield. Joseph Runningfox makes sure he keeps a foot in that world at all times.

Angelo Masino himself plays the role of Marco, whose life has come apart until Geronimo – whether as hallucination or as a viable presence – appears like a kindred spirit. Also appearing in key roles are Tim Davis and Loree Sobrito, Jodi Jacobs, Jonathan D’Acunto, and Jacob Parisse.

An Italian American Indian opens tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in the 2nd Story Theatre, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach, in the Hermosa Beach Community Center. It is produced by Masino, along with The Hermosa Arts Foundation. It runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through April 9. Tickets, $15. Call (310) 374-9767. ER

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