Gloria Miguel started out in show business at an early age in circus sideshows with her family. Decades later, in the mid-’70s, Gloria and her sister Elizabeth (Lisa Mayo) joined up with their sister Muriel in forming Spiderwoman Theater. Spiderwoman has been delighting and educating audiences with plays about women’s issues and indigenous matters ever since, both in North America and overseas. Their productions include Women in Violence, Lysistrata Numbah!, Sun, Moon and Feather, Reverb-ber-ber-rations, Power Pipes, and Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show from Wigwam City. In addition to her work in theatre and film, Gloria Miguel has taught drama, led workshops, and served as a drama consultant. She and her sisters each received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Miami University in 1997. Gloria continues to perform, recently in Material Witness, which Spiderwoman developed with Loose Change Productions and the indigenous Canadian company Aanmitaagzi.
Terry Stoller spoke with Gloria Miguel in March 2018 about her youth in Brooklyn, performing in sideshows, singing and doing drama in church, meeting her husband and later becoming a faculty wife, studying acting at Oberlin—as well as the early days of Spiderwoman and the success of the group’s first production, Women in Violence, and subsequent productions, including a send-up of the sideshows of her youth.
Terry Stoller: You grew up in Red Hook, and you’ve said you weren’t comfortable there. How did your family wind up there?
Gloria Miguel: My mother was born in Brooklyn and was living there with her family. My grandmother was a Rappahannock from Virginia. My father, a Kuna from Central America, was an able-bodied seaman on a four masted schooner—he very proudly used to say. He traveled all over. He docked in Brooklyn, and some other seamen on his boat said, We know some other Indian families in Brooklyn. We’re going there. Do you want to come with us? And he said, Sure. They were all Kuna. So they walked down Court Street to my mother’s house. My mother was sitting at the window, and she looked out and saw these men walking down the steps, and she said, I’m going to marry that one. And she did. He fell in love with her.
So that’s how my parents met. It was an Italian neighborhood near the docks. A lot of Italian folks were longshoremen and dockworkers, and they were quite racist. They used to make fun of us and give us a hard time. We had a few good friends—women and kids. I was not as popular as my sisters because I have darker skin. They got along a little better than I did. I was more shy, so I didn’t battle. My sisters Muriel and Elizabeth were tougher. They were like street kids. I wasn’t. We all had trouble. Walking down the street, I had to prepare because people would always comment. What saved our lives was that during that time in the ’30s, there were Wild West shows. Many Native people came to New York, and they stayed or were stranded, and my father connected with them. He used to sing and dance Kuna, but he got together with the American Indians, and they danced and sang together. We had a backyard. There was always Native song, dance, people.
Your parents performed in sideshows, and so did you.
When I was very young, I had to go along. That was an interesting experience. I didn’t realize as a child how bad it was. But we used it later in our theatre pieces. In Canarsie, Brooklyn, they had an amusement park like Coney Island. They had the sideshow, the freaks, and the specialty acts, and the circus. We were in a little section, next to the freaks. The people would come and look at the freaks and walk on and look at the Indians. We did a lot of shows, shows at churches, the sideshows. We did ballyhoo for a John Wayne movie. At one point, my family were planted on imitation rocks in a church in Brooklyn, and the light was on us and the American flag, and wind was blowing on the flag, and a chorus behind us was singing, “O, beautiful for spacious skies …” At that point—I was about 8 years old—I knew there was something wrong, that I couldn’t go on with this. And my sister Elizabeth and I quit and didn’t go with my mother and father anymore.
My daughter Monique Mojica wrote a play with LeAnne Howe about sideshow freaks and the Indians from our experiences. It’s changed, but many people still think of Native people as freaks. The word freaks is my anger word. Almost every day when I’m out in the world, there’s a remark. This is a racist country. But some people love Indians and want to become them and go to reservations.
We three sisters were very dramatic—from my mother’s side and my father’s side. Even as a child, I saw things in a different way and did things in a different way. Even my mother would notice that Gloria was different. My sisters were also, but they were more outgoing. One of the things I was known for was a very inquisitive mind, and I had a little private life going. At night I’d have a village in my bedroom and talk to people and play with people. And my mother would say, Go to sleep, Gloria. When I think of it, that was the beginning of drama. And with my sisters also—we have it in a show, Sun, Moon and Feather—we put chairs together and blankets over them and acted out all our stories in the front room.
You were doing Spiderwoman before Spiderwoman.
That’s why we started it. We said, We have so much of this in our background. And I could sing. The American missionaries had gone down to Central America, and they followed my family to New York. We were connected with the missionaries and the Methodist Church in Brooklyn. That church, as I was growing up, had musicians to direct the choir and interesting people coming in doing drama.
Did you sing in the church choir?
Yes. When I first started, I had a deep voice. The choir master said I had a large range, so I would at one point sing high. I was asked to do solos, and I loved it. We had one minister who was a singer and an actor. He did a lot of drama.
When you were in your late teens, your life expanded further.
My sister Elizabeth and I met a woman from Germany, an American German. She used to say, you have to come with me some day. And I discovered folk dancing. She took us to New York, and we were folk dancing there. We did dances from all over the world, and naturally we met people from all over the world—all kinds of people, with different mindsets, and it was very exciting. I was about 17. We met people whom we never would have met. Of course it was the white world. It was so different from the indigenous world. I left the church, because at that time also I was introduced to young men who were interested in me and not making fun of me. Some men, young intellectual students, thought of me as a museum piece. I was a statue to them. I had to battle that. There’s always something to battle. At that time, I met a lot of Jewish refugees.
Both you and Elizabeth married Jewish men.
And Muriel had a relationship with a man who was Jewish and Irish. I met many other guys before my husband through folk dancing. I broke out and realized that I had some kind of beauty, some kind of interest in me. I met my husband, Mathis Szykowski, and he was completely fascinating. He was born in France, and after Hitler came to Paris, his mother said, Tear off your Jewish star. She gave him some photographs, a little bit of money, and said, Go to the edge of town, take a bus to the mountains, and never come back—I’ll be okay. His father was already in a concentration camp. He was a teenager, and he went to the Pyrenees. At the end of the war, he was in Spain. The Red Cross sent him back to Paris, but he had almost no relatives there. He had two uncles, one in New York and one in Los Angeles. They sent him to L.A., and he didn’t like it and went back to New York. He didn’t even have a high school degree, and he was working as a counselor at the Wiltwyck School for Boys. He and his gang of guys were fascinating, and they accepted me as a person—most of them. I guess I fascinated him too. We were married.
Did your family accept your marrying a Jewish man?
My father was affected still by the missionaries who had gone down to Kuna Yala. He said, As long as he believes in God. And my mother said, Anyone who likes Gloria can’t be bad. They loved him, and of course they loved my two children, Monique and Raphael, when they came along. Monique is an actress and a playwright. She lives in Toronto. Raphael is a social worker in Minnesota.
Later on, your husband became a professor at Oberlin, and you went to live there. Was it at that point that you started to study acting?
I was acting all along. It started in church. I did a lot of work in Christmas pageants and Easter pageants and singing. I took theatre classes in New York at the Union Settlement and the Henry Street Settlement. And I studied voice for a long time. I wasn’t professional, but I was interested in it. When I got to Oberlin, I was a faculty wife. My husband at that point was a professor, and everybody had degrees. You could get a scholarship, so they gave me a one, and I studied theatre and education at Oberlin. I didn’t get a degree because after three years, my husband and I broke up.
You took a workshop with Bill Irwin at Oberlin?
He came there with a group with Herbert Blau, and they were doing workshops.
What were you studying at Oberlin?
We had history of theatre, scene study, performing, a little bit of dance, a little bit of voice. I was enjoying it very much.
Were you exploring theatre from your culture?
I put that in our scene studies and in our workshops. When I start doing work from my inside, what comes up is my indigenous background. So I put a lot of that into my workshop work. We made our own pieces up. And a lot of that came from breaking into the circle. I always felt on the outside of the circle in the white man’s world. So I did pieces on getting into that circle. I did pieces on how I look, pieces on how I feel. Out of it came a lot of discovery on my part, which included how racism and colonialism affected me as a person, and why I’m like the way I am, even in New York City.
In the mid-’70s, your sister Muriel wanted to form a group.
I used to go back and forth to New York. I became involved in a little bit of what was going on in New York. I remember one Christmas the three of us were together, and we posed for a photograph. With what I was learning in Oberlin, I said, Let’s all take a character—and we did. And as we looked at that photograph, it was just a snapshot, we said, We should be in theatre. That thought went on its way. Muriel was interested in working with women at that time—that was the feminist movement—and the women she worked with didn’t understand theatre. She had a hard time because they didn’t have the gut feeling of taking a chance, going to the truth, performing and doing something, and then dropping it because you don’t have that character anymore. She had all those problems. She said, I’m going to start another group. Elizabeth was in theatre at that time, I was studying at Oberlin, and Muriel was in the Open Theater. She got a small scholarship, and we had a stage manager and a student helper. And we started rehearsing.
You got together, and you were going to examine violence.
Women and violence. We started talking about violence in our lives. All kinds of violence.
Your first tour to Europe was in 1977. Luis Valdez of El Teatro Campesino had recommended your group for the World Theatre Festival.
The first show, Women in Violence, was so good, which surprised us. I came to New York in the winter term from Oberlin. I got credit for working on it. We started rehearsing, and it was wonderful. We put together a piece during the rehearsal. We all had to get a character of what we were like. And we decided to find a clown in each of us. I brought that from Oberlin and Bill Irwin. From that we built our costume and character. My clown was lost in what, who, why I am. I was very thin at that time, so I had this one-piece jumpsuit. I had to be tough, so I had a hard hat on, a big yellow hard hat with a Native feather. I had a flashlight to find myself in corners.
In your Spiderwoman process, you come up with a theme, you improvise, and then it gets shaped through discussion and rehearsal. Did you use that process and the storyweaving with Women in Violence?
At that time, Spiderwoman had other people in the group.
White folks and some gay folks. We were rehearsing here at Westbeth. Norman Penn had a studio in the courtyard (his wife Brandy Penn was in the show), and we rehearsed there. Phil Arnoult from Maryland heard about us, and he came to see a rehearsal. We had performed it once at Washington Square Methodist Church, but it was still in the making. He said, You’ve got to come to the Maryland festival. So we had our first gig already. We took it to the festival in Maryland, and people there thought we were the greatest thing on earth because of different color women and different size women, women of many nations, and the subject. And there were entrepreneurs from all over the world and performers. And Luis Valdez. He liked us because we were indigenous like his group, working in a contemporary world. And he said, If you don’t take Spiderwoman, don’t take anybody. So that summer, we received this letter from France inviting us to the World Theatre Festival. And we weren’t even together for a whole year yet. We didn’t even have the fare. We found all our costumes in garbage cans and stuff like that. Ralph Lee helped us. We got the money together—we had a benefit—put our rags together, and we went to France.
Did you have a backdrop with the traditional Kuna mola cloth and use a story circle for that first production?
We work in circles because that’s indigenous. And everybody participated in making the backdrop. It was like a quilt, and in the middle was a mola. We did everything from a woman’s point of view, and indigenous—of course, there were other races too at that time. So it was women, and we took Nancy by storm. That first performance was wonderful. There were crowds waiting in line. They opened the door, and the people rushed in.
It was the beginning of a tremendous experience in Europe. We worked for a couple of weeks in Nancy. Entrepreneurs came from all over—and we performed elsewhere in Europe. We thought we’d never go home.
You also performed Lysistrata Numbah! in Europe.
We went to Europe for five years straight, and then we finally decided we’d better go to our own country.
In Women in Violence, you were using your own stories. Obviously, in Lysistrata Numbah!, you were adapting the Aristophanes play.
We took the Aristophanes story—a good idea, women who stopped war—and we put our own stories in. We each took a character. Everybody refused to make love to their husbands, but my character couldn’t say no. She had a hard time. That was my character because when I went to Europe, I was getting a divorce. I had no man in my life, and I hit France. The men were so gorgeous, and a lot of them were after me. I went crazy. My sisters were worried about me.
Many of your plays deal with racism, expressing hurts, and other serious issues. However your play Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show from Wigwam City is mostly wild and farcical.
Oren Lyons, who’s the faithkeeper on the Onondaga reservation in Syracuse, came down and said, A lot of people these days become shamans. They call them plastic shamans. They have no idea what they’re doing, but they want to take up the Native tradition. They have sweats and ceremonies. Then they become Indian. They can’t do that. He said, You girls, write a show.
So Oren Lyons was your inspiration. That play has been attributed to a book by Karl May.
In Europe, we met someone who said you have to read this book Winnetou by Karl May. May said he was an Indian and had more spiritual qualities than any Indian. He wrote this big book of being Indian, which is all baloney. So we took that book, and because it’s so big, we did parts of it. You go into the forest, and you see animals and commune with animals—a lot of bullshit. And there was a princess, and she was very beautiful because she had white skin and white features. Awful. We still do pieces of it. We did it this week.
I loved your trick of slicing a sheet of the New York Times with an imaginary whip from behind your back.
We did the fallacy of show business and the fallacy of the whole thing.
And the section in which you get a volunteer from the audience to make him an Indian is so funny.
It was my job to find a volunteer. I did very well every show. I usually chose a man who was rather handsome and who looked very sure of himself. I always found one. Never made a mistake.
He chooses an “Indian tribe” and an “Indian name”—and he is given a medicine bag along with a photocopy of an Indian man’s face to hold in front of his face. How did you come up with that?
Years ago, when we were in show business, Indians used to choose someone and adopt him into the tribe—they don’t do that anymore—and they became blood brothers. We have a lot of blood brothers. So we just blew that up. A lot of people who were adopted felt that they were Indian. My father did this at a big ceremony, a powwow, and the person we adopted was the mayor of Trenton, New Jersey. They asked him to be my sister Muriel’s godfather.
In your productions, you often show home movies and movies of powwows.
My Uncle Joe got himself a movie camera and used to take moving pictures of everything our family did. The powwows were from all over—New York, Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut. Some of the films are show business. He also took pictures down in Kuna Yala where he’s from. Muriel loaned them to somebody who left them somewhere. Nobody knows where they are now.
You went back to Kuna Yala, and you did a play about that with Elizabeth called Daughters from the Stars: Nis Bundor.
In 1970, my father passed away. Most of the Kunas in New York City passed away. I had to go down there to reconnect. Because I thought after my father died, Where’s our connection? So I made a trip down to my father’s island. They were living there so primitively, I could never survive. They are a little better now because now they have more medicine. Women died at childbirth, and they had whooping cough, rabies. You’d go swimming, and a shark could kill you. It’s beautiful there, but it frightened me. I stayed six weeks. My family there would ask me, Why did you come back? Why do you want to be here? I said, You don’t realize how wonderful it is for me to feel that I’m going back to the earth where my father came from, meeting cousins and aunts and uncles who look like me.
Then I went back for the last time with Elizabeth in 1994. She received a grant, and we went back, just the two of us. When I went with her, it was a wonderful trip from beginning to end. We taught theatre workshops to Kuna people who were living in Panama City. And we performed the piece that we wrote, Daughters from the Stars, which is a traditional Kuna story, on the island of Ustupu. That’s not my father’s island; that’s my uncle’s island. They didn’t speak English, but they did speak Spanish. What we had was a show in itself—we had two men, one who translated from Kuna to Spanish and one who translated from Spanish to English. So as we performed, we had all that going on. It was so beautiful.
In Daughters from the Stars and other plays, you have indigenous music with flutes and rattles and Native vocalizations, but you also burst into popular songs.
That’s part of us, where we grew up. And movies—in Sun, Moon and Feather, we sing the “Indian Love Call,” playing Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald. It’s our life here in New York.
And in Power Pipes, which included your niece Murielle Borst and the Colorado sisters, the cast formed a chorus line dancing to “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.” That happened right after scenes about rape on the subway. So the traumatic story was followed by a lighthearted element.
One of the reasons is that our lives are morbid sometimes, sad, a lot of it. And we have to say, Hey, enough of this. One time, a guy said to me, It’s too serious. I can’t take all of this. You make me cry. They don’t like it, so we have to burst into song all of a sudden like in a musical comedy. Life is like that. Both ways. You’re happy, and then something happens. I find a lot of that in my life. I guess my sisters did too.
Are you telling elder stories now in your work?
It’s a mixture. Traditionally, we would say we love our elders. But there are days when I don’t hear from anybody. So I decided to write a show called Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue. In it—partly, not the whole thing—is what happens when you get old. People don’t like to see you, don’t want to be with you, don’t invite you, leave you out. It’s real. If no one calls me two weeks, three weeks, if I don’t hear from the family—I could sit there and if I waited for the phone to ring, I’d be dead. I said, Gloria, you’ve got to love yourself. No matter what, you have to have love for yourself to say, They can’t do this to me. I’ll have to do something for myself. So I have to go out and do things in the world, make calls, make that whole life for myself.
Because you and your sisters were so close, working together, it must have been very hard to lose your elder sister, Elizabeth, in 2013.
Yes, it was. She started losing it slowly, and we had one or two very odd performances where we had to push and pull and yell and whisper. Muriel’s daughter and my daughter had to help her onstage. She had Alzheimer’s. Those last shows were very hard. We were crying at the end of the show. Although she tried to the very end, she gave up. She had cancer. It was too much, and she gave up.
We still feel her onstage. She’s there and backstage. After a show we all used to get together. She’s still there. I still wait for her.
What are you working on now?
We’re going to be at Theater for the New City in June with Fear of Oatmeal. In the fall, I go to Canada with Material Witness. One of the girls in that group lives on a Nipissing reservation in northeastern Ontario. We did it there and in Toronto last summer. There’s a Native American organization for the arts called Amerinda, and Spiderwoman is a member of Amerinda. I was in several of their productions. And last year I was asked to do a show uptown on 133rd Street in a non-native group. It’s good to work outside, to meet other people. It’s not huge parts that I want. But I want to do a little something because I can still emote. I have a hard time walking, but I still have a speaking voice, and I love doing it.
Credits: Top photo: Ed Maruyama; photos courtesy of Gloria Miguel.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2018 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council