Theater review: ‘The Frybread Queen’ at the Autry National Center

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In ‘The Frybread Queen,’ playwright Carolyn Dunn sifts the conflicts between tradition and modernity in the post-millennial Native American landscape into an ambitious yet over-stuffed saga of three generations of women and the beloved dead man who haunts them all.

Using the titular tribal foodstuff as all-purpose metaphor, Dunn frames both acts with a recipe monologue for each character, easily the play’s best writing. The prologue introduces Jessie Burns (Jane Lind), a deceptively chipper Navajo matriarch preparing for the impending funeral of Paul, her firstborn, whose recent suicide raises the heat on a rapid-burning narrative oven.


Cue the daughters-in-law. Quiet-spoken Carlisle (Shyla Marlin), wife of Jessie’s second son, arrives from Los Angeles, armed with self-rising flour, modern Indian attitudes and a tacit agenda. She plans it in tandem with foul-mouthed Annalee (Kimberly Norris Guerrero), Paul’s ex-wife, whose portable oxygen tank portends the soap-edged fireworks ahead.

Enter disaffected Lily (Elizabeth Frances), Paul’s teen daughter, the focus of Carlisle and Annalee’s gambit, and revelations fold upon reversals.

Dunn is a writer of talent and imagination, gifted at exposition and the telling detail, but her plot grows so over-seasoned -- spousal abuse, incest and spectral possession are but three complications -- that it cannot really breathe, and the explosively abrupt ending sorely needs an epilogue.

That said, each player has her tickling and/or arresting moment. Director Robert Caisley’s staging certainly holds attention, as smoothly presented and flavorful as anything the Autry National Center’s Native Voices series has yet housed. It suggests what ‘Frybread’ might yet become with remixed ingredients.

-- David C. Nichols

‘The Frybread Queen,’ Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 27. $20 (323) 667-2000 ext. 354. or Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.