Black Shawl examines cultural, personal history

Taneeka Hansen

This weekend the struggles of Black Shawl, her granddaughter and their tribe came alive in Maxey Auditorium through the voice of a single woman on Friday and Saturday, February 11 and 12.

Sharon French, an actress of Navajo/Paiute/Anglo descent, shared the story of her Navajo grandmother, Sarah, which she wrote in 1996. French crafted the story originally as an outdoor drama with a cast of 60 actors. Of the original cast, 30 actors were Native American.
“They took ownership of it because it was about them,” said French of her actors.

Sharon French assumes the role of her own great-great-grandmother, Black Shawl, one of the many characters in her one-woman play. Credit: Marie von Hafften

At the end of 10 years with her cast, French adapted the show so she could continue it on her own. To tell the story of her grandmother French gives voice to 18 different characters. She also weaves stories from her own life into the performance, showing how the traditions of the past shape her own story.

When Associate Professor of Chemistry Allison Calhoun saw this one-woman show in Colorado, she was so touched by the story that she lobbied to have Sharon French brought to campus as a guest educator and performer. Both of French’s performances on campus drew crowds made up of equal parts students, faculty and community members.

At the outset, French climbed the stairs of the stage slowly. The 73-year-old began in a soft voice to tell the story of the natives of the New Mexico and Colorado area and to set the stage for the scene of her grandmother’s birth. Soon, however, the audience was surprised by the big voices of Aunt Kate and her husband, both embodied by the same woman.

French and her characters took the audience through Sarah’s birth and adoption by Lily and her settler family, her reintegration into a Navajo tribe at the age of 10 and Sarah’s last glimpse of her grandmother, Black Shawl, as the old woman began the long walk to Fort Sumner.

At the close of the show, the audience appeared in awe of the family story that had just been shared with them.   Several audience members took a moment to thank French for coming.

“It was amazing. She is a very powerful storyteller,” said first-year Jenna Carr.

Carr found out about the show through posters in her residence hall. She expressed a wish that more people could have attended the show to hear French’s story and message.
French shared more than a touching tale; she showed respect for history and storytelling.
“To the Navajo elders, money means little. But stories are precious,” she said at the beginning of her performance.
Her dramatic retelling of Sarah’s story and her own personal stories inspired interest in American history through a special, private setting. “Black Shawl” offered a unique glimpse into a history that has often been suppressed.