“Sliver of a Full Moon” challenges the reviewer — the language one might ordinarily use to describe theater does not seem to fit this particular play. The words “performance,” “entertainment” and “drama” are crude signifiers to describe such a raw and emotional work. “Full Moon,” which took place at the Yale Law School on Tuesday, is not so much performed as it is relived. The word “act” implies that the performers don an artistic façade for the duration of the play before returning to the people they are in real life. We often assume that pieces of theater are works of fiction: there is not the same tradition of bringing real stories to life on stage as there is in film (i.e. documentary) or writing (nonfiction).
“Full Moon” challenges these conventions about drama. Often the actors don’t act at all; rather, they speak their stories aloud. The play’s force comes from soliloquies in which the main characters — four survivors of sexual assault who testified before Congress while lobbying for the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 — recall their most trying moments of abuse. VAWA was intended to allow Native American courts to prosecute sexual offenders without ties to the reservation and thus protect vulnerable women; originally presented to Congress in 2012, it failed to pass the House. In 2013, these sexual assault survivors appeared before Congress and told their stories (which are reproduced in “Full Moon”), an act of bravery that helped secure the support of key House Republican votes to ensure passage of the bill in its entirety, including several essential clauses providing for Native American empowerment and protection. It was owing almost entirely to the courage of a few Native American Women — the survivors and actresses of the play — that the bill was rescued. This is the great triumph celebrated by “Full Moon,” but in the same breath the play also acknowledges that there is much left to do. Indeed, the title implies this reality, and throughout the play the actors and the audience never lose sight of the legal battles to come.
Beyond its anecdotal foundation, “Full Moon” presents staggering statistics on sexual violence against Native American women. According to the play (as well as the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Department of Justice) Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other American women — 34% of American Indian women will be raped during their lifetimes. But statistics can be hard to conceptualize; “Full Moon” helps its audience better visualize the fight for tribal jurisdiction to prosecute non-indigenous offenders. At different points throughout the play each survivor shares how the necessary legislation could have saved them from abuse.
“Full Moon” presents the greatest obstacle besetting VAWA: conservatives’ resistance to propositions without foundation in the Constitution. This opposition was particularly frustrating for the Native American lobbyists because the opponents of VAWA, particularly House majority leader Eric Cantor, were correct; as the Supreme Court previously ruled in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978), tribal courts have no jurisdiction over non-Native Americans. This was shortsighted, and problems persist to this day.
Despite the collective understanding that there is still a long way to go in achieving legal equality and protection for Native Americans, Tuesday’s event sounded a note of celebration. The performance of “Sliver of a Full Moon” marked the success of VAWA. It was also a moment to consider the history of indigenous peoples in America against the backdrop of Yale — an institution whose name still connotes privilege, power and exclusion. We think of Yale as a bastion of knowledge that dates back to America’s earliest days, predating even the Revolution. But we don’t often think of Yale as an institution that occupies a relatively recent place in the history of the continent. Professor Blackhawk sought to remind the audience of this fact in his introductory remarks, when he acknowledged the Quinnipiac and Algonquian peoples on whose land Yale is built. Indeed, the play carries meaning for us at Yale, where the study of indigenous cultures and peoples is just beginning to take its proper place in the intellectual life of the University. The performance of “Sliver of Full Moon” is relevant not only to Native American communities on campus, but also to all students who seek to learn in a place that values the full account of our land and the indigenous peoples with whom we have historically shared it.