William S. Yellow Robe, a playwright, director and University of Maine educator who
explored the racial, cultural and emotional faultlines of Native American life through his more than 45 published plays, died in Bangor on Monday after a long illness. He was 61.
His death was confirmed by his UMaine colleague and longtime friend, English professor Margo Lukens.
Yellow Robe was an enrolled member of the Assiniboine Tribe of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, where he grew up. He was drawn to writing and theater at an early age. A middle-school teacher first encouraged him to try playwriting, according to a biography on the University of California Berkeley’s website .
By the time he was in college at the University of Montana, he was on the path to a career as a playwright and theater artist. Last year, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the school, an honor he found especially meaningful.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Yellow Robe was a prolific writer of both full-length and one-act plays, as well as essays, short stories and poems. He has worked with many acclaimed theater companies across the country, including the Public Theater and the Ensemble Studio Theatre, both in New York City, Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island.
Yellow Robe’s “voice is funny, honest, and searing. He tells painful truths that are designed to heal, and healing truths that are hard to hear,” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater and former artistic director of Trinity Repertory, wrote in a review of one of Yellow Robe’s collections of plays. “He writes from an utterly specific Native world, one we all need to know, but he uncovers human truths that are universal and profound.”
Yellow Robe’s connection to Maine dates back to the early 2000s. Lukens went to see a 2003 production of Yellow Robe’s play “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers” at Trinity Repertory. After the performance, Lukens asked him about bringing a production of the play to UMaine, and Yellow Robe suggested instead that he just come to Maine.
A year later, Yellow Robe had a 10-week Libra professorship in UMaine’s English department in the fall of 2004, during which his play “Better-n-Indins” was staged at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre, with a cast composed mostly of community members from Indian Island and Old Town. Though his career took him all over the U.S. at various points over the past 17 years, he had lived full-time in Maine since 2013. He lived in Old Town.
“Bill Yellow Robe was wise beyond his years and strove to help tribal communities share in telling their stories,” said Donna Loring, a Penobscot author and former adviser to Gov. Janet Mills who studied with Yellow Robe. “He knew the value of a well-produced community play. His voice and unique perspective will truly be missed.”
Several of Yellow Robe’s other plays have been produced at UMaine over the years, including “Rez Politics” in 2009, and “Wood Bones” in 2016. He taught a number of undergraduate and graduate classes at UMaine, and developed close mentorships with young artists from the local Penobscot tribe.
“He was very passionate about nurturing artists from Native communities, and building relationships and mentorships with emerging talent,” said Lukens, who worked with Yellow Robe on a number of essays and other projects. “He wanted theater in particular to be a focus for Native people, and an artistic tool. He saw a lot of injustice in the way Native artists are treated by the mainstream. He helped a lot of people find their voices.”
Yellow Robe’s plays dealt with many facets of Native American life, though several of his most acclaimed works focused on the complicated dynamics within Native communities for people such as Yellow Robe with mixed Black and Native ancestry.
“Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers” drew directly from his heritage as the great-grandson of one of the Buffalo Soldiers, the nickname for one of the all-Black regiments that fought in the Indian Wars in the late 19th century. Elsewhere, he meditated on the loss of culture and family ties after centuries of genocide against Indigenous people severed many of those links.
“One of the threads that runs through his work is the idea of trying to recover a connection to lost relatives, and lost pieces of yourself,” Lukens said. “Sometimes that came out in humorous ways, like in his play ‘Native American Paranormal Society,’ but sometimes it was incredibly poignant and went straight to the heart.”
Three collections of Yellow Robe’s plays have been published, including “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers and Other Untold Stories,” a collection of his full-length plays; “Where the Pavement Ends: New Native Drama,” a collection of his one-act plays; and, most recently, “Restless Spirits: Plays,” published in 2020.
Among his many awards and honors are the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency in 2014, the Native American Achiever’s Award from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian, and a special award from New England Theater Conference.
According to Lukens, in the past few years, Yellow Robe struggled with several health problems, including congestive heart failure and diabetes. Nevertheless, he maintained a busy schedule, and as recently as last month directed one of his plays, via Zoom, at the University of New Hampshire.
Just last week, it was announced that Yellow Robe was awarded $40,000 as part of the New York Community Trust’s Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting, in recognition of his exceptional career as a playwright and his contributions to building the field, in particular among Native American theaters.
He is survived by his wife, Jeanne Domek-Yellow Robe.
Correction: A previous version of this story did not give the complete name of Yellow Robe’s wife.