WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Sovereignty,” a play by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, had its world premiere at D.C.’s Arena Stage on Jan. 24. There could not have been a more appropriate time for the play when women’s voices are being heard to change the world.
The play, part of the Women’s Voices Festival, allows Nagle, also an attorney who works to protect tribal sovereignty, to powerfully voice how her own tribe, the Cherokee, has struggled since the 1830s for self-rule in the United States.
Ably directed by Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, featured stellar acting by a cast that includes four members of Native American tribes. The play depicts the theft of tribal lands from the time of former U.S. President Andrew Jackson to today’s high rate of abuse of Native American women by outsiders on reservations.
The play starts off on in the present day with the audience introduced to Sarah Ridge Polson (beautifully played by Kyla Garcia), an impassioned attorney who returns to the reservation to fight for her people and whose dream is to argue before the Supreme Court for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
It is Polson who sets up the historical timeline of injustice toward the Cherokee Nation and explains how during the 1820s, the state of Georgia began pressuring the United States government to force the Cherokee tribe off their land.
The 1830 Indian Removal Bill, backed by Jackson, was the first step toward removing the Cherokees permanently from their land.
The Cherokee Nation took legal action to try to save their lands and in the Supreme Court case, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Supreme Court Justice John Marshall ruled that the Native American nation was a “distinct community in which the laws of Georgia can have no force” and into which Georgians could not enter without the permission of the Cherokees themselves.
Despite this ruling, the state of Georgia, driven by rumors of gold, illegally confiscated the Cherokee lands, and without Jackson providing federal protection, outsiders came in, raped and killed people and forced them from their homes. That set up a tragic faceoff between three Cherokee leaders, attorney John Ridge, his father Major Ridge, and the Chief of the tribe John Ross. While Ross was adamant about not giving up their land and moving to Oklahoma, the Ridges felt that the Cherokees had no choice.
In the play, Polson, is a direct descendant of the Ridges who negotiated The Treaty of New Echota signed in 1836, agreeing that the Cherokee would leave their lands and travel 800 miles to the Oklahoma Territory over what came to be called “The Trail of Tears.”
In the dual roles of Andrew Jackson and Ben, a cop and love interest to Sarah, Joseph Carlson is excellent in embodying men who are liars, contemptuous, and who is void of integrity. As Major Ridge and his descendant, Andrew Roa is stately and dignified, resigned to the fact that signing the New Echota Treaty will be signing his own death warrant.
Kalani Queypo gives a superb performance as the young Cherokee attorney John Ridge, who like his father feels that when negotiations with the immoral Jackson fail, the Cherokee have only two choices: genocide or giving up their ancestral home.
Jake Waid, as Chief John Ross and Jim Ross, is equally impressive, a warrior who fiercely refuses to leave the land that he knows is rightfully the Cherokees.
Other cast members who shine in this outstanding production include Michael Glenn as Samuel Worcester/Mitch, Jake Hart as Elias Boudinot/Watie, Dorea Schmidt as Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora Ridge and Todd Scofield as White Chorus Man.
Kudos also go to a talented creative team including Ken MacDonald, whose striking, functional set transports the audience from scenes ranging from a Cherokee cemetery to a room in the White House. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel sets the mood with his various shades and Linda Cho’s costumes with their handsome cutaway suits and sound by Ed Littlefield, who combines traditional Native melodies with contemporary jazz.
A final mention goes to vocal coach Zack Champion who trained the actors to beautifully capture the dialect of the Cherokee language. “Sovereignty” plays through Feb. 18 in the Kreeger Theatre.