Judgment is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing.” In modern day society, this definition can apply to numerous situations ranging from looks given on a school playground to the decision made by a court of law. If this word is capitalized, it becomes a religious term referring to an ultimate decision made by God. It is because judgment is applied in such a diverse set of scenarios that it is able to touch human emotion in anyone; even those who have never been formally judged by a court of law are affected daily by the looks they receive from those around them. These glances may appear to be looks of approval, or stares that leave the recipient feeling vulnerable and self-conscious. In Bruce King’s “Evening at the Warbonnet,” although the Native American characters are not followers of the Christian church, the word “judgment” takes on a more religious connotation, as over the course of the play these individuals must prepare themselves for a final judgment into the afterlife.
Judgment in “Evening at the Warbonnet” takes place in two stages: the first occurs in the initial impression each character makes on those around him or her, and the second arises when judgment turns inward, as each character critiques his or her own actions in the form of a confession. Sugar Lin is the epitome of one who is judged too quickly upon her arrival at the Warbonnet. Artsy, who has been observing her from the bar, asks: “What’s your make on her, Ducky? Model?” (p. 395) Based on her appearance and the low-cut dress she is wearing, Sugar Lin is expected to be the classic example of a woman who makes a living by utilizing her good looks. Mable, an older woman at the bar who has been previously judged to have more substance to her than Sugar Lin has, is not waited on by the men in the bar as the latter is. However, Sugar Lin’s confession reveals that her interior is just as complex as Mable’s: the way Sugar Lin takes advantage of men’s affections is rooted in a traumatic history of incestuous abuse.
Like the characters of Mable, Artsy, and Brave Eagle, Sugar Lin’s initial attitude reflects the assumption that those around her do not understand the intensity of her past and how it caused her to commit criminal acts. At the climax of her breakdown she cries: “I never hated men!” (p. 433) as a reaction to the assumption that she simply hates men; she knows that there is a reason for her behavior, and she believes others cannot understand it. However, over the course of the play each of these characters must recognize that not only are the judgments made by those around them incorrect, but that they must personally inspect how their personal judgments have caused them to treat themselves. The fact that each character has hidden the reasons for his or her suicide a secret throughout the play shows a level of negative self-judgment and a distrust of others. Just as Brave Eagle’s actions are a projection of the self-loathing he feels for not belonging to a particular race, Sugar Lin is tormented by how sexual abuse has led her to commit murder and then suicide.
If each character’s confession is a necessary step in reaching his or her final judgment, then self-judgment is an essential part of the “burden” (p. 411) that each must unload before making this transition. Because the hesitation before each character’s confession is inextricably linked to some form of self-loathing, it is required that each must learn how to free his or herself from personal guilt before the final judgment can take place. Thus, in “Evening at the Warbonnet,” self-judgment becomes a barrier to the afterlife; considering that each has chosen to take his or her own life, the afterlife is what each character strives to reach. Judgment is simultaneously necessary for and blocks the ultimate form of escape. Perhaps this concept can be generalized to the living, as it is a common human desire to be comfortable and appreciative of oneself. If this level of contentedness, as opposed to death, is considered the ultimate escape, then King’s play suggests that a key step in reaching this state is to learn how to stop judging ourselves. Of course, judgment is necessary to direct ethical actions, but being haunted by the past as the characters in “Evening at the Warbonnet” are is not beneficial. Although it is a seemingly impossible task to eliminate self-judgment, further academic research could explore how confession, as used by characters in King’s play, can be utilized to minimize unnecessary self-judgment.
King, B. (2007). Evening at the warbonnet. Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.