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This Indigenous writer's take on 'Peter Pan' is a version that can live in 2024

Larissa FastHorse
John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Larissa FastHorse

When Larissa FastHorse, a professor of practice in the Department of English at Arizona State University, was first approached about writing an adaptation of "Peter Pan," she said no.

FastHorse is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and she grew up avoiding "Peter Pan." In her community, it was seen as a degrading depiction of indigenous people. The musical version was first produced in 1954, and featured clumsy Native American stereotypes and racist song lyrics. On top of that, productions often used non-Native actors in redface to play the so-called “Indians.”

But for this new production, director Lonny Price wanted FastHorse. He promised to give her the creative freedom she needed to adapt the story, and eventually she decided it was an opportunity to heal the wounds that previous versions caused. Her new take on "Peter Pan" arrives this week at Arizona State University’s Gammage performing arts center, running June 11-16.

FastHorse spoke to The Show about the delicate process of creating an updated vision of Neverland that honors its indigenous characters, as well as its female ones.

Full conversation

LARISSA FASTHORSE: Tiger Lily and Acoma, who is a new character I wrote in, are both descendants of Native American tribes. And then everybody though, including them, are each representing an extinct tribe. The magic of Neverland is that no one ever grows old. So I said, well, let's take the last one of each of these cultures and have them come to Neverland to preserve their culture and to keep it alive and hope that one day they can return to this world and exist again. So we found different cultures from every continent and we base these tribal characters on each of those extinct people.

SAM DINGMAN: I feel like I'm hearing you say that you kind of used the idea of a place like Neverland to make a, a better version of Neverland.

FASTHORSE: Yeah, exactly. No, that's exactly it. What is the magic of Neverland? What are the rules that already exist? Let's not make a new one. Let's just use what's there. And then how do we solve within that? The other one though was that was actually far more complicated was the role of women. When Wendy went to Neverland, they went to visit the mermaids and she sat on the shore sewing pockets. I mean, come on, like she had to work the whole time in Neverland, right?

DINGMAN: Raw deal.

FASTHORSE: Like everyone else is having a great time. But that's what made Neverland magical for her was because she got to just care for men. I said, so that's not gonna fly for me, for now. And, and it was so baked in though, to everything. And so I had to figure out like, OK, again, how do we use the magic of this? Wendy's a lovely caring person who does care for her brothers and does, and it has to matter to her that she wants to bring her brothers with her and that she also wants to get them home again and that she wants to bring the lost boys with her home. You know, all those things are about what kind of caring human she is.

What if she wants to be a surgeon? Like she wants to be something in the world that's, that's caring for people, but she's all smart and she has goals and dreams. And it worked out perfectly actually. So we got to keep so many iconic lines of Wendy's, but within the framework of her wanting to be a surgeon and wanting to care for people in a different kind of way.

And I will, I will say we were at the Ordway, and that's where we previewed the show in Saint Paul, and they did a lot of exit interviews with children, and I was so proud when a lot of children were asked about Wendy. And the response was, I like her because she's both smart and kind. Oh, amazing. Like that's, that's what they got from it.

DINGMAN: Wow, mission accomplished. I'm tempted to ask you as a writer and having presumably the, the sensitivities that, that an artist has, you're making changes to a lot of the fundamentals of this story. Did you have any, I don't know, apprehension or tentativeness, or did you just figure if we're gonna do this, we're gonna do it the Larissa FastHorse way.

FASTHORSE: Oh, no, I was terrified every day. I said all the time. I mean, I think the first year of working on this, I kept saying this may be the thing that ends my career.


FASTHORSE: Like, I really don't know, you know, to be frank, we called in a lot of people to help us in the process. We had some folks in New York that are part of a theater company that is in residence of the public and they have various physical disabilities and one of them, you know, is missing a hand and like Hook. And so like, you know, how do we talk about these things? Like what is the appropriate way to talk about and represent these things?

DINGMAN: What were those changes with regard to Captain Hook?

FASTHORSE: It was really fascinating. They talked about this being a story of someone gains their power through a disability. And so they're very small. Like if you didn't know the show, you probably wouldn't notice them. But if you know the show, well, there's little bits in how he first acknowledges like, this is what made me who I am. I am this incredible power because of this and not in spite of it.

DINGMAN: I hear empathy in that, too. You know, like Hook can still be a villain. But if there is some little tendril in the show that also makes us pause even for a second to think like, yeah, but what made him into a villain? That's, that's revelatory. You know, if you have the kind of cartoonish buffoon version of hook from the Disney movie in your head.

FASTHORSE: Yeah, for sure.

DINGMAN: I wondered though, in kind of in the same vein you wrote this incredible play called "The Thanksgiving Play," which is about some, let's say misguided theater, people trying to put on a respectful Thanksgiving pageant and kind of finding out they're not as woke as they think they are. Did you have any nervousness about falling into like a similar trap on this?

FASTHORSE: Yeah, for sure. And I, I mean, I, I also though, you know, I mean, I did my homework. I, I've read now the book, the first play, the, you know, every version of the musical. I, if there's any version of "Peter Pan" that exist out there, I've read it. I need it to be the one that understood. Why is this line here? Why is this line important to, why has this line survived to several versions of this?

The frustrating thing, though, is people don't know it as well as they think they do because I'm, I'm very specifically adapting the Jerome Robbins Broadway version. And even critics in the papers, and they're like, oh, I can't believe she took this line out. I can't believe she took that line out. It ruined everything, this whole scene for me. And it's like, it's not in the, it doesn't exist. It never was. I have it here. You know, I don't say that, me sitting at home being like, wow, I know a lot about "Peter Pan" now. Like, because I know, oh, that's actually from the book or that's actually from the original play, that's from "Hook" the movie or that, you know, I can go through and be like, oh, I know exactly what you're thinking of. It's fascinating how people have ascribed, taken moments of different Peter Pans and put them together into one in their brain.

DINGMAN: So as a last question, this is, this is another kind of writer question. You know, we've been talking about all of these really fascinating, thoughtful decisions to create a new version of "Peter Pan" that sort of brought it back to life. It's still "Peter Pan," but it's a version of "Peter Pan" that can live in this world. And I wonder if as a writer yourself, you've thought about the possibility that somebody, you know, a century from now might be rewriting your work and, and what that, what that makes you feel.

FASTHORSE: Oh, yeah, I hope they are. I mean, you know, the first time I had my work published, it terrified me because it was being frozen in this moment. I don't believe art should be frozen. It's reflecting a moment but it, in the best hope, art continues to grow and change and reflect new moments and, or become obsolete and, and show us a previous moment and, and now we need to move on from it. So having work that can continue to be cared about enough to be brought forward and adjusted and changed and made into thing new, that can be by, by another generation. That's exciting to me and that would be a huge honor.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.
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