In 1839, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s great-great-great grandfather, Cherokee statesman John Ridge, was assassinated for signing the Treaty of New Echota. In 2017, Nagle wrote a play about her family’s tangled history. And in 2018, Arena will stage its world premiere.
Sovereignty, a play that bounces from Andrew Jackson’s presidency to a few years past 2017, tells the story of Native Americans’ rights to their own land through the lens of Nagle’s family.
On the first day of rehearsal, the Sovereignty cast and crew, including Nagle and director Molly Smith, held a discussion. They explained Sovereignty’s importance, staged a few brief scenes, and made all of us in the audience wish that Sovereignty – Arena Stage’s selection for the upcoming 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival – premiered tomorrow.
That’s because, as Nagle and Smith explained, there aren’t many plays by Native Americans, let alone Native American women. Most theaters have never staged a work by a Native American playwright, and Native American actors struggle to find roles that don’t pigeonhole them. Plays and films that depict Native American culture are often dominated by whites. Take this year’s critically acclaimed movie Wind River, which takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The movie was written and directed by a white man and stars two white actors.
Nagle, Smith, and the cast of Sovereignty are determined to change the status quo.
Their discussion made it clear that this play is meant to inform and catalyze. Native American women face the highest levels of domestic abuse and assault among any group in the United States, yet tribes aren’t allowed to prosecute non-natives who commit crimes on reservations. In 2016, the Supreme Court heard a case about a Dollar General manager (and non-native) who sexually abused a 13-year-old Native American boy in his store. The Choctaw tribe who owned the reservation wanted to try the man, and a court battle ensued.
The Supreme Court’s vote? A tie, which would have almost certainly come down against the Choctaw tribe had Antonin Scalia not passed away during court proceedings.
The Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians case is typical of the government’s treatment of Native Americans, said Nagle, since the government often ignores treaties that give tribes certain legal rights. “Reservations are supposed to have a voting representative in Congress,” she said at one point, and the audience murmured in surprise. None of us had known that. But Nagle, who is also a star attorney (her law firm has argued for native rights in front of the Supreme Court) guided us through cases and laws with engaging ease.
The cast of Sovereignty performed several short scenes throughout the discussion, and though they read from scripts, they gave a tantalizing look into the play’s taut, yet funny scenes. Actress Kyla Garcia, who plays protagonist Sarah Ridge Polson, delivered a rousing monologue that compared women’s sovereignty over their own bodies to the sovereignty of Native Americans over their land and laws. Some audience members were near tears by the time she had finished.
“As storytellers, we have a responsibility to educate our audience,” Garcia said afterward. “When people ask me what I’m working on now, I say, ‘Do you have a minute? This will take a minute to explain.’”
Garcia, Nagle, and Smith believe in Sovereignty as a work that teaches as it entertains, that lays pain bare as it builds a complex web of names, dates, and treaties. I was inspired by their dedication, and it makes me think that the play will be a powerful performance indeed.
During the discussion, one audience member, a minister who had worked with abused women on reservation land, said that the United States routinely ignored the voices of Native American women. “People ask, ‘Why aren’t these women saying something?’” she said. “The truth is, they’ve been saying something for a long time.”
If Sovereignty delivers on its promised strength, no one will be able to ignore it.
Sovereignty will play from January 12 through February 18, 2018, as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets call (202) 488-3300 or go online.