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(Many Paths)
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Putting a Sheen on Native Theater
by Shondiin Silversmith - Navajo Times

Hollywood actor says he learned more than he taught at drama workshop

SHIPROCK — Johnny Depp may have been elusive last year while filming "The Lone Ranger" on the rez, but another big Hollywood name got into the act this past week with Native kids honing their dramatic skills.

Martin Sheen was on hand at the Native Vision drama workshop in Shiprock, and took the stage with the participants in their series of skits titled "The Navajo News," performed Monday night at The Phil Thomas Performing Arts Center.

News and talk shows took an interesting turn as Navajo youths acted out the comedic skits with Native American flavor, and Sheen had high praise for his young co-stars.

"The Navajo News" was the product of the drama workshop put together by Native Vision, a youth development initiative for reservation-based American Indian adolescents from across the country. Its aim is to help American Indian youth enjoy a healthy future by providing exciting fitness activities, school completion initiatives and health start programs. Vision drama workshop, producing three major skits for their play "The Navajo News."

Hundreds of people piled into the Phil to see what the kids from the five-day drama workshop prepared.

The first skit was performed by Mikal Nih, 17, and Tyus A. Ellison, 16, as they played the role of news anchors for Channel 4, Navajo News.

Nih started off with "Our top story today in Shiprock: Nothing happened." The audience laughed and cheered the comedic appeal of the acting and stories told throughout the night.

Other skits included talk shows, one being much like Jerry Springer where the talk show host interviewed two Navajo men claiming to be "reservation Romeos."

"It was a fun experience; the fun is what you learn from it," said Deion Hayes, 20, of Shiprock, who played one of the Romeos.

Sixteen-year-old Miracle Russell from Shiprock High School played a character named Rose Pedals for a talk show skit featuring a special guest: Sheen, playing himself.

The skit was comical as Russell's character constantly mistook Martin Sheen for Jack Nicholson, her first question being, "How is it playing The Joker?"

Sheen and Russell's character were finally able to find common ground when she called him "Uncle Ben," a character Sheen played in the movie "The Amazing Spider Man."

"It was amazing how it all turned out," said Russell.

"He was so fun," she said of working with Sheen. "I thought he was really scary at first but it was fun. We played off each other, we gave each other ideas.

"If I could do it all over again I would," Russell said, adding the main thing she's going to take away from this experience will be the advice given to her by Sheen and Native Vision Acting Coordinator Vaz Santosham.

"I like how we became a family, a little actor family," she said.

Workshop instructors told all the students in the camp to have fun with it, be free, be yourself and "when you're on stage you don't act, you just do," Russell said.

For his part, Sheen said the best part about his visit to the Navajo Nation was performing onstage with Russell.

"I've been doing it (acting) for 50 years, she's been doing it for five days and we were equal," Sheen said of his fellow actor. "She used her instrument like a professional. For me it was unbelievable."

The Native Vision drama workshop started on May 27, and from those five days, Santosham said he hopes the kids take away one thing: "If you are going to fail, fail boldly. If you're going to fail don't fail because you were too scared to take the jump."

Santosham said the major challenge working with Navajos was pulling them away from their shyness so they could "be free."

Once he did, Santosham said a fire was lit in each of the kids and they all stood up to the challenge. It showed in their performances.

Sheen agreed. "I hope they have a sense of achievement with this show and most of all have a sense of confidence, because what has happened here and what is so really encouraging is that these children were asked to go into a safe place and explore their imaginations in a very public way," the actor said.

When asked what he was hoping to teach the kids, Sheen replied,"I came here to learn."

Sheen said he wanted to come to Native Vision to help in any way he could, and now he is leaving with "a very great sense of satisfaction.

"I was nourished and blessed," he stated. "I couldn't ask for anything more. I look forward to coming back again."

He added, "I really hope they get something started here so that these kids have a safe place to work and grow." If the kids could create a play in only five days' time, Sheen said, "That's something very special."

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