“Ramona”: California history at the intersection of Native, Spanish and white

HEMET, Calif. – This outdoor pageant has been playing here for 93 years and counting. It’s Ramona, a broad-based community volunteer project established back in 1923 as a means of telling the world-famous Ramona story and attracting visitors and tourists to this area two hours from Los Angeles, and even closer to San Diego and Palm Springs.

People out here trace back three or four generations of relatives who acted in the show. Packed tour buses arrive from all over Southern California to ingest the Ramona experience. Arrive well before the 3:30 showtime, and you’ll find a virtual Ramona carnival, with entertainment by Spanish and Mexican dancers, Native singers and dancers, a small museum, and ample food choices.

Ramona plays for only three weekends in the Spring, before it gets unbearably hot in the desert. The Ramona Bowl is set against a picturesque backdrop of rocky hills which gambol with the changing light as the afternoon sun starts casting ever longer shadows.

Helen Hunt Jackson, ally of the Native cause

The progenitor of the Ramona romance was the American author Helen Hunt Jackson, who in her 1881 book A Century of Dishonor had proven her advocacy of Indian rights by documenting the history of U.S. government betrayals. But few people read it, least of all members of Congress.

In a theatrical innovation fresh this year, Jackson makes an early appearance on stage. She’s traveling around the area on a commission to report on the present condition of the Natives, but she’s convinced no one will pay it any heed. People don’t read anything these days, she says exasperatedly. And if they read at all, it’s only cheap entertainment and novels that stir the emotions – silly romances, she ruminates. Then, obviously struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration from the Muse, she rushes off mid-sentence, excusing herself: “I have a book to write!”

When Ramona was published in 1884 it became an immediate bestseller, soon appearing in many languages and editions, and never going out of print. It changed public perception of the Native populations the country was nearly on the verge of wiping out, and gave rise to a wave of nostalgia about lost innocence as the country industrialized and urbanized. Ramona had an effect on public consciousness comparable to the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin a generation earlier had awakened the nation’s sympathies for the Black slaves.

Even though Jackson’s novel is a romanticized version of our nation’s past, and the outdoor play a sweeping historical melodrama, as the story of indigenous peoples continues to unfold throughout the world today, the legend is capable of taking on ever new levels of meaning for modern audiences. The white man’s broken promises and treaties somehow never go out of fashion!

I was frankly expecting to witness an almost century-old rite of sentimentalism at best, and  supremacism in a racist melting-pot kind of way. But after 26 years in California, regularly reminded that this popular Ramona phenomenon was sitting out there in Hemet waiting for me to discover, I decided it was time already to see for myself. I’m quite pleased I went, and feel chagrin admitting to my dismissive preconceptions, fears and judgment.

The intersectionality of it all

Jackson took the period around 1850 as her time frame, highlighting the intersectionality (I don’t think she would have been familiar with that term) among three distinct civilizations: The Mexican and Spanish “Californios” who settled on their ranches and worked primarily with horses, cattle and sheep; the native populations that to various degrees adapted to the European or Creole Catholic presence on their land; and then the onslaught of “Americanos” who flooded West once gold had been discovered. All of a sudden, both Californios and natives – groups not always on such cordial terms – were about to get deracinated by the whites with their enforceable U.S. government land grants from Washington, D.C., in hand. As it’s often been said, “We didn’t cross the borders, the borders crossed us.”

Ramona embraced a romantic vision and version of sun-drenched California that still persists. The story became one of the principal tourist attractions for California: People wanted to see where the novel was set, and local entrepreneurs took full advantage, transforming fictional characters into tangible history. Alongside many other factors, of course, the state’s population and economic importance grew accordingly.

The Ramona Bowl is a non-profit organization funded by ticket sales, commercial ads in the generous full-color program sold for $5, grants and donations. Oh, yes, and $3 to rent a foam cushion for your tush atop rock-hard amphitheater concrete. The attraction recruits over 600 volunteers each spring, boasts an impressive outreach to young students, and enjoys ample local support from various civic and fraternal organizations. For a very long time now, Ramona has been good for business.

Of course, before we even begin the drama, just so there is no confusion about the legitimacy of our borders, the territorial integrity of the United States must be confirmed. Right at the start three horsemen appear with a 39-star flag (with the new state of California in the union). And the announcer acknowledges all those veterans in the audience or those serving presently (they stood to grateful applause). Then a thank you to all the doctors, nurses, firefighters, police and other first responders in the house (they too stood to grateful applause). Such is the post-9/11 de rigueur salute to the military that has infused American culture. Later on, in a musical interlude, we will be treated to the hymns of all the branches of the armed forces.

The original play from 1923 was written by Garnett Holme, and undoubtedly has undergone revisions over the years. But in 2015 the Ramona Bowl featured a major rewrite by Stephen Savage which now includes a gentle poetic narration recorded by well-known Native American actor Irene Bedard, more of the history of the Mexican War (1845-48), California statehood (1850), and more onstage time for the cowboys on horseback. The overarching theme is the struggle to form a cohesive community, state and nation; and now, wiser and better for it, we have E Pluribus Unum. Yeah, still a little hokey.

The drama centers on a doomed romance between Ramona (Kayla Contreras), raised in the Californio Moreno family, and Alessandro (Joseph Valdez), a local Indian who is employed on the ranch as a master sheep shearer. But Señora Moreno (Kathi Anderson) has deeply suppressed some terrible secrets in the family, which now catch up with her at a most inopportune time. Alessandro has plenty of reasons to hate all white people, although Ramona tries to remind him that there are some good ones. And we do see that indeed, within the limitations of time and place, they side with the natives against the more rapacious white occupiers.

Ramona – the play, the folk drama, the melodrama, the outdoor pageant (it can legitimately be called any of these) – is enjoyed as a scenic three-hour Cinerama Western performed on location before our very eyes, with impressive sound effects such as a live cannon, the horses’ hoofbeats, and gunshots galore. We see elegantly costumed players of all ages and ethnicities chasing across a wide, generously planted stage with numerous areas designed for discrete actions, and scrambling nimbly up and down the slopes. It’s too diffuse a “happening” to really be judged on the strength of acting alone, which of necessity is broad, and short on nuance.

The high points are the grand celebrations – a Californio fiesta with a full complement of musicians (The Arias Troubadours) and singers, dancers, a lovely zarzuela aria (Linda Greilich), a ballerina, flamenco; and the Native festivities when the protagonists’ new child is welcomed into the world, with song, the Red Tail Spirit Dancers, and the elders’ blessing. I have to mention the most magical rendition of the hoop dance (Terry Lee Goedel) I have ever seen (he placed first in the annual World Hoop Dance Championships six times).

I am prepared to accept the authenticity of the Native songs and dances, which seems to have the endorsement of the local Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians. Though attractive to the eye, I wonder, though, how recently the spangly fabrics were introduced; they possess a somewhat metallic, unorganic character that clashes with the spirit of the work.

The program lists 29 named actors (a few playing multiples roles), and there are also large contingents of children, townsfolk, Natives rising out of the hills from all directions, and miscellaneous military (Mexican and American) and landgrabbers. At the curtain call I estimated a cast of close to 80, not counting 8 members of the equine persuasion. Overall direction of this vast enterprise is by Dennis Anderson.

The sound system could use a little attention. The wistful, soft-spoken narration could sadly be heard only intermittently over all the stage noise, the rustling breeze, and a not always quiet audience. A number of the live actors, especially the men on horseback, either did not project their voices adequately, or maybe their mikes were not placed right, or perhaps they just weren’t turned up sufficiently.

But these are minor points. The big gestures and sleeve-worn emotions carried the narrative well, if not with great subtlety. It has very much the feel of a declamatory, 19th-century style of theatre, which is fine for what it is – the longest-running outdoor drama in the country and California’s Official Outdoor Play. And what it is, is eminently engaging, entertaining to the max, and definitely worth putting on your schedule if you’re ever in the vicinity at the right time. If not this year, remember to check it out for some future date.

Remaining Ramonas this season are April 30 and May 1 at 3:30 pm (gates open at 1:30). The venue is located at 27400 Ramona Bowl Rd., Hemet, Calif. 92544. For tickets and further information: (800) 645.4465 or (951) 658.3111; or www.ramonabowl.com.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.