Rhiana Yazzie on ‘Nancy,’ her play premiering at Mosaic Theater

Comedy, satire, and pain in a wildly imaginative work about Native American identity and a First Lady descended from Pocahontas.

What does Pocahontas have to do with a president’s wife?

Not much, in the case of Nancy, the wildly imaginative play by Rhiana Yazzie, now in previews at Mosaic Theater. However, even a little goes a long way in this exploration of a chance encounter between two women.

Rhiana Yazzie. Photo courtesy of Mosaic Theater Company.

The Nancy of the title is Nancy Reagan, wife of President Ronald Reagan and unlikely descendant of Pocahontas, the Native American princess who used her political power to save a British colony.

The other woman is Esmeralda, a single mother and member of the Navajo Nation, trying to save her reservation from being turned into a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

The play is set in 1985 and tells the tale of what might have happened if the two had met at a Kennedy Center celebration of a Hollywood version of Native American culture. The event, which is as fake as most such spectacles are, gives Esmeralda a brief opportunity to plead her case to the president’s wife.

Nancy is a joint production by Mosaic and New Native Theatre, a 15-year-old theater organization based in the Twin Cities. Founded by Yazzie in 2009, the company focuses on stories by and for Native American artists and audiences.

Curious to know more about the play as well as its author, I interviewed Yazzie online, at what turned out to be a very early hour on the West Coast, where she was holed up in Venice, California, writing scripts for the third season of AMC’s hit TV series Dark Winds. (It was, she explained, one of several “day jobs” that allow her to write for the stage.)

We began with Pocahontas. How did this come about? I asked. In other words, how did a “red Indian princess,” known to most people through a Disney musical, get into a tragicomedy (or comic tragedy) about racism and power?

Yazzie laughed. “I was originally drawn to the story of the real Pocahontas, but ended up writing a play about her and her sister,” she explained. Called Queen Cleopatre and Princess Pocahontas, the play was commissioned jointly by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater for their American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle.

‘Nancy’ show art courtesy of Mosaic Theater Company.

In the course of writing, however, she learned that Nancy Reagan — a figure of ridicule to many — was actually a descendant of Pocahontas. Intrigued, she began writing this play in 2016, during a McKnight playwriting fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center.

The play that ultimately emerged is, according to Yazzie, a combination of comedy, satire, and pain. It pits Nancy, the president’s perfectly coiffed wife, against Esmeralda, the Navajo single mother who has been thrown into the middle of political and economic policies that deeply affect Indian Country.

“The play takes a sharp look at Native identity,” she said. “It explores the difference between ‘lived’ experience and ‘remote’ experience, which is all that most white people know. I wanted to show how diverse Native American identity is.”

According to Yazzie, the play raises some difficult questions, including the tendency, among whites, to favor Native Americans who are more assimilated over those who have retained the lived experience.

“That’s a question I’ve been interested in all my life,” she said, pointing out that Esmeralda, who is phenotypically Navajo, and Joey, a 30-year-old woman who passes for white, represent two completely different kinds of experience.

Esmeralda sums it up, plaintively, at one point in the play:

“No one sees me,” she laments. “I’m invisible. I might as well disappear.”

And disappear she does.

“Esmeralda cannot choose her identity,” Yazzie said, spelling out the dilemma. “She’s culturally and physically Navajo. Nancy, on the other hand, has options. As the wife of the president of the United States, she has vast political power. When she learns that she is a descendant of the ‘real’ Pocahontas, she toys with the idea of going public.

“She has no Native American heritage or culture whatsoever,” Yazzie said. “But she understands that she can use the connection and brandish it as a feather in her cap. So while she never formally acknowledges the relationship, her interest in it is clear.

“New Age spirituality governed her life, as did her obsession with astrology. The result was a mass of contradiction, including her denial of the AIDS crisis.”

In fact, the play opens with Nancy’s refusal to intervene in an appeal from Rock Hudson, the Hollywood star who is dying of AIDS but unable to get into a French hospital that offers some hope. All that is needed is a single phone call.

“Imagine,” Yazzie said, shaking her head in amazement, “denying help to a dying man, someone she and the president had actually known!”

Yet she comes full circle at the end. “Ultimately, the play asks if someone like Nancy can go from being self-centered and fearful to caring about, and trying to help, other people. The message may be: If you have power, use it to help others.”

Ironically, she told me, the Reagan administration, despite its condescension and failures, did do some positive things for the Native American population. “They helped open the door to gaming on the reservations, and reversed some of the most punitive policies enacted by previous leaders.”

Bottom line? “The play is joyful, funny, and heartfelt. It’s an unusual take on the Reagan administration from a Navajo woman’s perspective.”

Rhiana Yazzie is that Navajo woman. A prolific playwright and screenwriter, she estimates that she’s written at least 40 plays, though not all, sad to say, have been produced.

She started writing plays as a child. By the time she got to college, she understood that theater — and especially playwriting — was an art form with which she could fall in love.

Born and raised in New Mexico, she did her undergraduate work at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she had the good fortune to study under Digby Wolfe, an accomplished playwright and actor whose plays — and especially satirical comedies — made him hugely successful in the UK and Australia. He moved to the U.S. in 1964, co-created the show Laugh-In, and ultimately settled at UNM, where he ran the Dramatic Writing Program.

“It was from Digby that I learned the love of playwriting,” she said. “And because he was a comedian, I think that gave me permission to be funny in my writing too.”

Her parents were not activists, but her mentors — Digby Wolfe and William Yellow Robe Jr., the great Native American playwright — were. Her favorite playwright is Tennessee Williams.

Today she lives in the Twin Cities, which is the epicenter of a large urban Native population where the American Indian Movement was founded in 1968.

“Writing for the stage has never been economically viable,” she said ruefully. Like many other successful playwrights, she supplements her income with two “day jobs.” One is running New Native Theatre, Mosaic’s partner in producing Nancy; the other is writing for television.

Current plans include a children’s play for the Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences in January of 2025, plus new plays in development with Solas Nua here in Washington and the Fishamble Theatre in Dublin.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Nancy plays March 28 through April 21, 2024, presented by Mosaic Theater Company in partnership with New Native Theatre performing in the Sprenger Theater at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($42–$70) online or from the Box Office at (202) 399-7993 x501 or [email protected] from 11 AM–5 PM Monday through Friday, or two hours prior to a performance.

The program for Nancy is online here.

COVID Safety: Mosaic Theater aligns its safety protocols with those of the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Masking is recommended but is now optional.

By Rhiana Yazzie
Directed by Ken-Matt Martin

Regina Aquino (Joan/Ensemble; she/her/siya)
Michael Kevin Darnall (Reagan et al.)
Derek Gaza (Whaley/David Lee Roth; he/him)
Lynn Hawley (Nancy Reagan)
Anaseini Katoa (Esmeralda; she/her)
Jen Olivares (Princess Pale Moon/Joey)
Tenley Stitzer (Jacqueline; she/her)

Misha Kachman (Set Design)
Moyenda Kulemeka (Costume Design)
Larry Peterson (Wig Design)
Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting)
Navid Azeez (Sound)
Chelsea Dean (Properties)
Hailey LaRoe (Projections Designer)
Sierra Young (Fight & Intimacy Director)
Chelsea Radigan (Dramaturgy & Casting Director)
Victor Vazquez (Casting).
Shayne O’Neill (Production Stage Manager)

Reflection Series/Talkbacks
• April 4 after the evening performance of Nancy at Mosaic Theater: a talkback with Janet Clark, Supervisory Cultural Arts Program Specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
• April 14 after the matinee performance of Nancy at Mosaic Theater: a talkback with the artists.


  1. What a vivid and insightful portrait of this Navajo feminist playwright. The themes of identity and assimilation are especially important now. The playwright’ s compassion, humor and complex ideas are very much needed.

  2. I saw this yesterday, at the final preview, and was blown away by its passion and humor. The cast is terrific, and the juxtaposition of satire and realism is brilliant. Kudos to everyone involved, and especially to Yazzie, the playwright; director Ken-Matt Martin, and the entire cast. Thank you, all.
    I urge everyone reading this to run out immediately and get your tickets before they’re gone!


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