- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2001

Barry Lopez wrote Coyote's stories when the author was 23. More than three decades later, one of the most enduring characters of American Indian culture — Old Man Coyote — will be brought to life locally by Arena Stage.

The text of the production is extracted from the stories of Mr. Lopez's book "Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America." The book collects 68 tales about Coyote from 42 American Indian tribes.

The Arena Stage production — "Coyote Builds North America" — incorporates dancing, music and storytelling. (The choreography will be done by Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet.)

A storyteller — American Indian actress Tantoo Cardinal — will set up the world in which Coyote lives. The actress will be accompanied by two dancers and six musicians representing a selection of eight stories that will try to give the audience a sense of the character.

But who is Coyote?

Mr. Lopez defines Coyote as the ultimate trickster, the creator of nature and its nurtures, painfully human in its desire to control an uncontrollable world, full of charm and charisma but also vain and foolish.

"Most Euro-Americans are comfortable dividing right from wrong, left from right, top from bottom, but Coyote is not a polarized character," Mr. Lopez says during a visit to Washington earlier this week. "It's not good, it's not bad, it comes from a time before we had all these convenient divisions."

Mr. Lopez says that virtually all the good and the bad of human beings are represented in Coyote's character.

The surprise is that a character that initially looks different from the world in which we're living turns out to be very familiar and accessible. "You walk out of an office building in Washington, go to the theater and then you're participating in the play because something in your genetic makeup recognizes this ancient character," the author says.

The character is familiar to people from all over the world and part of the day-to-day life of many people — from Australian Aborigines to Kenyan tribes, he says.

"Wherever you go, you're able to find stories about the trickster," says Mr. Lopez, a traveler who has written about the arctic (he won the National Book Award for his novel "Arctic Dreams"), the desert ("Desert Notes") and the Caribbean ("Light Action in the Caribbean" is his most recent work).

Mr. Lopez, who has been living in rural Oregon for the past 30 years, thinks the way he writes is determined in part by how far out of the town he is. He doesn't own a computer and instead uses a typewriter. "I'm not wrapped up in the world that includes everyday traffic, a 9-to-5 job and phone and e-mail, so I am able to maintain a frame of mind that is more transcendent," he says.

The writer sees Coyote's stories, like many myths, as appropriate for people of all ages. "The story itself is not complicated in its plot. The narrative is not hard to follow, but the relationships between the parts are so multilayered that a young person can follow it through one layer and be happy with it, a middle-aged person can follow two or three layers and be very engaged, and an older person can be simply thinking, 'Oh, I didn't notice that before,'" Mr. Lopez says.

"They look simple, but they're extremely complicated."WHAT: "Coyote Builds North America"WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SWWHEN: March 2 through April 15PHONE: 202/488-3300

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