Review: Mosaic Theater Company's World Premiere of Nancy

Now on stage at Atlas Performing Arts Center

By: Apr. 04, 2024
Review: Mosaic Theater Company's World Premiere of Nancy
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The 1980s was a decade of the revival of conservatism in American politics due to the Reagan administration. Activism from the 60s and 70s continued well into the 80s. Pop culture was dominated by MTV. Mosaic Theater Company's, in association with New Native Theater, world premiere production of Nancy, written by Navajo playwright Rhiana Yazzie and directed by Ken-Matt Martin with the role of production Elder taken on by activist/artist Rose Powhatan of the Pamunkey and Tauxenent tribal nations, is set during this radical period in the United States’ history. Although the show’s title implies a focus on Nancy Reagan (Lynn Hawley), there is a more indepth story beyond the White House; one rooted in Native American activism. Esmeralda (‘Anaseini Katoa), a Navajo mother, is fiercely advocating for her community and her daughter’s future. Nancy is a powerful satire which looks into how American politics and Indigenous stereotypes impact the lives of Native Americans. 

There’s a satirical bite to Nancy. Sometimes, there’s a dash of surrealism too, with an unexpected appearance by a certain 80’s rock ‘n’ roll legend (hint: think Van Halen), inflatable horses, and floating dog collars. The cast does a remarkable job with embracing the satirical nature of Nancy. Hawley’s performance as Nancy Reagan is hysterical, as she over exaggerates the former First Lady’s mannerisms and demeanor. In particular, Nancy’s close relationship with her astrologer, Joan (Regina Aquino), makes for entertaining scenes, especially when Nancy begs Joan for signs within her and “Ronnie’s” star charts. Michael Kevin Darnall’s Reagan doesn’t appear too frequently in the play, but whenever he does, Darnall steals the spotlight with his uncanny accent. The play explores the concept of Pretendians through Nancy and Joey’s (Jen Olivares) storylines. In a scene befitting supervillains, Joey and her husband, Ed, conspire ways for Joey to flaunt her claims of Indigenous ancestry. When Nancy finds out she is related to Pocahontas, she craves to create a “connection” with her ancestry, and invites Princess Pale Moon (also played by Olivares) to bless her in a ceremony. What ensues is probably one of the most funny scenes in the play where Princess Moon takes Nancy through a “blessing,” which includes the burning of “sacred iceberg lettuce.”

Anaseini Katoa’s Esmeralda graces the stage with passion and drive, channeling the determination to help her community fight injustices caused by policies implemented by the American government. She attends a conference in Denver where she meets Whaley, played by Derek Garza, and Ed, who want to support her project. The scenes between Garza’s Whaley and Katoa’s Esmeralda lead to interesting conservations, which touch on a few topics facing Indigenous communities within the U.S. While a brief romance between Esmeralda and Whaley is delightful, it  doesn’t drive the story in productive ways. It might have been more intriguing for them to just be friends. 

Review: Mosaic Theater Company's World Premiere of Nancy
'Anaseini Katoa as Esmeralda, Tenley Stitzer as Jacqueline and Derek Garza as Whaley in Mosaic Theater’s production of Nancy by Rhiana Yazzie. Photo by Chris Banks. Directed by Ken-Matt Martin, Set design by Mischa Kachman, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka, Props Design by Chelsea Dean and Projections Design by Hailey LaRoe.

But, Esmeralda isn’t just an advocate and businesswoman; she’s also a mother. The play is a generational story. Esmeralda’s father worked in the uranium mines and his exposure to radioactive waste caused him to get cancer. Esmeralda endears and survives boarding school, and she raises her daughter on her own in Albuquerque. Certain points in the play explore the relationship between Esmeralda and her daughter, Jacqueline (Tenley Stitzer), and how Esmeralda’s anxieties and struggles with everything from money to racism affect Jacqueline physically and mentally. One of the most pivotal moments within Nancy is Esmeralda and Jacqueline’s car journey from Denver back home. It's a raw and emotional rift between a mother and daughter. Despite everything they have been through, Esmeralda’s bond with Jacqueline remains strong. 

The production’s design leans hard into 80s aesthetics with catchy tunes and sound bites, designed by Navi, and totally tubular projections, designed by Hailey LaRoe. The set, designed by Misha Kachman, features an elongated and sort of haunting stylistic image of Nancy Reagan surrounded by old TV sets. This makes her presence always in the room, even when Hawley isn’t on stage. This design captures the influence of Nancy within American politics and popular culture, as she had a run in Hollywood circles. There is a Native-inspired design based on sand art, but it is hidden on the ceiling. It would have been beneficial to work with Indigenous designers to include more Native American art front and center on the set. 

Nancy is a compelling satirical play with themes which still resonate today as Indigenous communities in the U.S. (and around the world) fight to get their land back, advocate for environmental justice, and improve the lives of people within their communities. Although the play does run a bit long, its pace doesn’t waver as one is absorbed by the complexities of its characters and plot. 

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission 

Nancy runs from March 28, 2024 until April 21, 2024 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington D.C. Tickets can be purchased here

Top image caption and credit: 'Anaseini Katoa as Esmeralda and Lynn Hawley as Nancy Reagan in Mosaic Theater’s production of Nancy by Rhiana Yazzie. Photo by Chris Banks. Directed by Ken-Matt Martin, Set design by Mischa Kachman, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka, Props Design by Chelsea Dean and Projections Design by Hailey LaRoe.


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