‘Where We Belong’ a Powerful Solo Performance at Folger

Madeline Sayet in Where We Belong at Folger Theatre. Photo by Erika Nizborski Photography

Play. Performance art. Personal plea. It’s all of this and more.

Where We Belong, now on stage at Folger Theatre, is an absorbing solo show that puts the concept of Shakespeare Everywhere on edge.

Theatre-maker Madeline Sayet has a strong connection to her Mohegan heritage. (She is also half Jewish, but interestingly that equally precious culture gets little mention.) She is also a devotee of Shakespeare.

When she travels to England to pursue a PhD in Shakespeare, she is confronted with the personal history of suppression of her Native ancestors… as well as the conundrum that the ubiquitous Bard is from a place that may be contracting from the wider world.

Madeline Sayet in Where We Belong at Folger Theatre. Photo by Erika Nizborski Photography

She arrives in 2015 to find an England that, she feels, continues to gloss over colonialism, along with an upcoming Brexit vote that has the country considering its place in the European Union.

She is troubled by native ancestors and artifacts showcased in British museums, an avoidance of colonial context in Shakespeare’s work, and wonders if her time spent away from ancestral land makes her any less Mohegan… and any more Londoner?

Retracing the steps that her Native ancestors took in the 1700s after treaty betrayals, Sayet’s journey for connection forces a larger introspection into what it means to belong: to a tribe, to a culture, to a country, to humanity.

While Sayet is alone on stage for the entire 90 minutes, audiences will feel the presence of so many others she invokes into her story: her mother, chief Mahomet Weyonomon, Fidelia Fielding (considered the last native speaker and preserver of the Mohegan Pequot language). Hao Bai’s lighting effects also appear as an additional character at times, representing borders, thoughts, and inspirations.

And while there is much to unpack regarding the suppression of Indigenous language and culture, Sayet’s work is also filled with humor, personality, and intimacy.

Madeline Sayet in Where We Belong at Folger Theatre. Photo by Erika Nizborski Photography

Where We Belong is thought-provoking in the theatre, but no doubt, as guests tour local Smithsonian museums, attend plays where indigenous lands are mentioned, or learn more about native schooling, Sayet’s reckoning for restitution will linger in their minds. And each viewing of Shakespeare on stage may force the ambition of his “theme universality” into a new light.

It’s a play. Performance art. Personal plea. It’s powerful stuff.

An earlier version of Where We Belong was produced in London at Richmix and Shakespeare’s Globe in 2019, as part of Border Crossings’ Origins Festival. What evolved over the next five years is a lightning rod for Indigenous theatre that has traveled the country. Now, after a successful national tour, Where We Belong returns to DC (where it originally premiered presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the Folger Shakespeare Library (2021) as a digital offering). It is now on stage in a partnership of the two theatres.

Where We Belong is at the Folger Theatre through Sunday, March 10, 2024. Tickets $20 – $84. Complimentary tickets are available throughout the show’s entire run to those who identify as part of the Indigenous community. 

Folger fully reopens on June 21, 2024.