Theater veteran Dennis Cattrell directs play about Lummis' treaty struggles with U.S. government


Dennis Cattrell

Dennis Cattrell directs "What About Those Promises?," a dramatization of the epic story of the Lummi Indians' struggle over treaties with the United States. The play will be presented at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 1, 2013 at Bellingham High School.


"What About Those Promises?" is a dramatization of the epic story of the Lummi Indians' struggle over treaties with the United States. The producer, Darrell Hillare, initiated the project, and with co-producer Ian Bivin, sketched the outlines of the production.

Dennis Cattrell directs the project, which will be presented at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 1, at Bellingham High School.

Cattrell talks about how the project began, and about his experience in the Bellingham theater community.

Question: What was the initial idea for the play?

Answer: It would be built around the original treaty signing in 1855, the 1927 Land Commission review and the decision, in 1970, by the Indian Claims Commission. In every case, the Lummis lost their claims, or won humiliating pittances.

The great time lapses between events in the show will be connected by commentary from Charles F. Wilkerson, perhaps the most noted scholar-attorney of tribal law and history in America.

Shelley Muzzy researched the records and provided dialogue for the U.S. representative, Gov. Stevens and his party.

Q: What was the rehearsal like?

A: For about six months the producers worked with a small group that included the author, Danita V. Washington, Robert Muzzy and myself. Then others from the Lummi community offered suggestions, which involved not only text, but production issues as well (i.e. appropriate Indian attire.)

We began rehearsals in April, but only after an important tribal rite was performed did we actually gain the full sense that we were good-to-go on to the performance. This process has been very educational for the non-tribal members of the company, and a major intent of the production is to make sure that younger tribe members learn and remember the objectives of the struggle re-enacted.

Tribal singing and dancing are incorporated into the production, and some of the speech will be in the "the language." And finally, some of the speeches will be "from the heart," not memorized, not quite ad lib.

Q: What's your own story?

A: Born nearly 67 years ago in Flint, Michigan, I am a graduate of the University of Michigan and Northern Illinois University. I came to teach theater at Western Washington University in 1966.

The theater arts department was founded in the mid-1970s, along with and as a part of WWUs College of Fine and Performing Arts. I was the chairman of the new department and continued as such for 12 years. I also taught a full load of classes and directed plays.

I consider this time to be the high point in my career because it was all uncharted territory. There was no training, no preparation - here is a new academic department; make it work.

Q: What were some of the shows at Western?

A: In those days we produced two faculty-directed shows each quarter, a touring children's theater show, three levels of student directing projects (scenes, one-acts, full-length) and graduate student productions.

The Summer Stock Program, begun by William Gregory (the first CFPA dean) and myself in 1972, absorbed my summers. We did 10 shows in 10 weeks: start and end with a musical, a Shakespeare, a children's play, a readers' show, and a mix of five comedies and dramas. It was exhilarating and exhausting.

Q: And then?

A: By 1987 I realized that my two kids needed more of me and my wife, Janice, deserved a shot at her own career. So I resigned the chairmanship and concentrated on directing, teaching and running the graduate program.

In the time between resigning the chairmanship and retirement I worked to represent the department and the college to the university at large and to serve the university on committees and commissions.

Perhaps the most valuable of these was as chairman of the library advisory committee for five years. And I returned to the department chairmanship twice before I retired, including the day I walked out the door. I served as acting dean from time to time and continued directing, even returning to do a show the year after I retired in 1999.

Q: After retirement, how have you spent your time?

A: All that theater work at Western left no time to participate in the community. But since retirement, the Bellingham Theatre Guild has given me the opportunity to continue directing and even to play Ben Franklin in the musical "1776."

Several years ago I performed in an original play at the Granville Island Theatre Festival in Vancouver and returned to Western to perform in the play "Proof." It was gratifying to be able to help several local artists put together an original play about Nikola Tesla and, for the past five years, The Midnight Mystery Players have kept me busy directing radio plays with a great bunch of local talent.

And for most of the same time The Chuckanut Radio Hour, sponsored by Village Books, has given me additional opportunity to work in radio. Presently I am honored to serve on the board of Mount Baker Theatre.

Q: Any thoughts about life (on the stage and off)?

A: Theater and performance have permeated my life and I have found that only there will everything finally get said: all the secrets will be told, lies shown as false, the truth will be glorified, the silly and ignorant exposed, the emperor will be naked and funny, and so will the sexy woman with the "kick me sign."

In the theater, live people stand before other live people to make palpable our shared hurts, joys, angers and love. This sharing is a great gift from both sides that satisfies a need that will endure until the last of our species is gone.

A theater event like "What About Those Promises?" will exercise the truth of this observation. It is way past time that we listen to our Native American neighbors' story.

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or Follow Bellingham Entertainment on Facebook or @bhamentertainme on Twitter.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service