“MUST SEE”, —Theatre Eddys
Beginning in the 1830s, Native Peoples were forced to leave their ancestral lands in the Southeastern United States and walk thousands of miles to resettle on barren lands in the West, with many thousands dying along the way. This “Trail of Tears” began with President Jackson refusing to enforce a ruling by the Supreme Court protecting Indian sovereignty of their lands against invading whites; and that immoral trail continues to this day with Native Americans still fighting for their legal rights to prosecute crimes of non-Natives committed in their legal territories. The result for women especially has been catastrophic with Native women facing higher rates of domestic violence and sexual assault – most often by non-Indian offenders – than any other population in the country.
Indian-rights lawyer and a member of the Cherokee Nation, Mary Kathryn Nagle, is also an accomplished playwright. She has written an extremely powerful and educating play, Sovereignty, that connects the history of her own ancestors and their legal battles for Native rights with present-day congressional and court challenges that still threaten those constitutional rights. With a cast and creative team that include a number of Native American members from various tribes, Marin Theatre Company presents the West Coast premiere of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty in a production that is nothing short than a must-see.
The playwright’s own great-great-great-great grandfather, Major Ridge, was speaker of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council in the 1820s and ‘30s and was awarded that rank by Andrew Jackson himself after helping the U.S. win the Creek and Seminole Wars. His story and that of his lawyer son, John, and his first-friend, then-rival John Ross – Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation – constitutes the historical core of Ms. Nagle’s Sovereignty, as well as their roles for and against the relocation of the Native Peoples.
Coupled with those monumental and catastrophic events of the early nineteenth century is the story of modern-day (and fictional) lawyer, Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) – also in this play a direct descendent of Major Ridge – who takes on the present-day Supreme Court to argue for reinstatement of Native People’s rights to govern their own territories, especially including the right to prosecute non-Native criminals for acts committed (including rape, murder, and child molestation) that can occur today in their territories, with the accused never being charged or convicted.
Two stories blend seamlessly back-and-forth under the magical direction of Jasson Minadakis, with a half-dozen actors who play different roles in both time periods often switching persona, eras, and thus scenes in a split second before our eyes. The director and playwright ensure that a complicated history is related clearly and with much impact even though its telling involves multiple court cases, presidential manipulation, and intra-tribal disagreements while also introducing blossoming romances and domestic strife in both time periods.
A key scene that shapes so much of the historical and the modern-day rest of the play occurs when Major Ridge (played with near-majestic pride and strength by Andrew Roa) and his son, John (a focused, well-spoken, and courageous Robert I. Mesa) meet with President Andrew Jackson (a Tennessee drawling, ego-centered, good-ol’-boy Craig Marker). Jackson begins by heaping praise on his long-time friend, the elderly Major Ridge (who only speaks Cherokee although he understands quite well English). Jackson talks in big but false smiles while beginning his demands that the Cherokees must move from their native Georgia because of the pressure he is receiving from the cotton growers who want the land and are already taking over farms that were guaranteed by treaty to the Cherokees. The revered Cherokee leader reminds the President, “Friendship forged in danger should not be forgotten,” with the now-viperous President hissing, “If you do not go ... you will disappear.”
When the Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall rules in 1832 that in fact the Cherokee Nation is the one and only sovereign over their own lands, we hear Jackson respond hatefully and defiantly, “John Marshall made the decision; let him enforce it.” The president’s refusal to uphold the law of the land (Sound familiar?) leads in the end to Father and Son Ridge – as white Georgians are taking Cherokee-owned lands and killing Native families – to reluctantly advocate and sign a new treaty to abdicate their lands and to relocate into new, western territories.
That move, as we see playing out in the scenes unfolding before us, is highly opposed by Cherokee Chief John Ross (a strong-willed, firm-jawed Jake Waid), setting up a huge division between the Ridge and Ross families that leads to disastrous and deadly ends in the 1800s. That family feud carries into the modern-day story of Sarah Ridge Polson. She takes a job in the U.S. Attorney General’s office, working for Jim Ross – a descendent of John Ross, with both Rosses played convincingly by Jake Waid – who tells Sarah before knowing her family background, “Never ever talk to me about that treaty, you hear?” (“that treaty” meaning what became known as the “Trail of Tears” Treaty signed by Sarah’s two, ‘multiple-great’ grandfathers). With her middle name remaining unknown to her new boss, the two partners prepare to take the Native People’s modern sovereignty rights case to the Supreme Court.
As intriguing and intense as both the 1830s and present-day, legal strategy and execution scenes are – and in this interwoven telling they are indeed attention-grabbing-and-holding throughout – Mary Kathryn Nagle brings further nuance to both time periods by introducing love interests for the young lawyer of the 1830s, John Ridge, and for the young, modern-day lawyer, Sarah Ridge Polson. Both of their potential spouses are themselves white, and both are at first met with resistance by the Cherokee fathers (each played by Andrew Roa). Ella Dershowitz is the aspiring fiancé and then wife of John, Sarah Bird Northrup – a woman strong in her own constitution and a firm believer and supporter of her husband’s battles for Cherokee survival. (She also plays the modern-day, oft-funny, always loving, and Oklahoma-twanged aunt of Sarah Ridge Polson, Flora Ridge.)
Craig Marker alternates his Southern-polite but clearly disingenuous President Jackson role to become Special Victim’s Unit detective, Ben O’Connor, who falls for the modern Sarah. Ben from the beginning trips over himself in his ignorance and faux pas concerning Native peoples (even using the word “Injun” at one point). His naivite is too quickly forgiven by Sarah and even her initially doubtful family. The title of his position becomes cruel irony as Craig Marker gives a chilling performance that is even more upsetting than the one he gives as the notorious Jackson.
Also taking on important and meaningful roles in both time periods are Kholan Studi (playing the Ridge family’s supporter, friend, and newspaper writer, Elias Boudinot, as well as modern Sarah’s brother and casino security officer, Watie) and Adam Magill (playing Reverend Samuel Worchester, a white missionary to the Cherokees who founds and edits the nationally read and influential The Cherokee Phoenix, first Native American newspaper in the U.S. and also playing the role of Mitch, a lawyer friend of Ben). We watch as Elias and Samuel become important players in the Ridge/Ross rivalry and in the Nation’s decision whether to migrate or not.
Finally, Scott Coopwood takes on a number of mostly repulsive roles in both eras, his role being noted in the program as “White Chorus Man.” Whether a modern drunk in the casino hollering at Officer Watie, “Redskin, out of my way,” or threatening with his gun as a white soldier the in 1830s the Christian-observant Elias (“Let me hear you pray, Boy, for that heathen soul of yours”), Mr. Coopwood is exceptional in being the worst of the white race – historical and modern.
Annie Smart’s scenic design is elegantly simple with an ever-present scrim that lets us see but keeps us purposefully separated from an idyllic, noble sky and landscape that are created by projections designer Mike Post and lit with morning and evening grandeur by Danny Osburn. E.B. Smart deserves big kudos for the two time periods’ dresses, uniforms, suits, and outfits that often switch even as a character says one sentence in one era and then switches to the next era and sentence of a new role, now in a new costume. The excellent creative team is rounded out by the habitually stellar work of Sara Huddleston as sound designer.
Sovereign is a gripping, emotional, awareness-awakening history lesson that has present-day implications for what we as Americans need to be paying more attention to and advocating to our current U.S. Senators, in particular, for needed legislation. A 25-year-old bill known as Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that permits the tribal nations to prosecute anyone (i.e., Native Americans and those not) who violates women on tribal lands has run its time-limited course and must be renewed by Congress. The House has done so; but the bill is stalled in the Senate. For this reason and many more, Marin Theatre’s Sovereignty is not only a must-see production for its theatrical excellence and script brilliance, it is a have-to-see for its implicit call for us as audience members to join the Sarah’s of the world to fight for the constitutional rights of all Native Americans – most critically in the present, Native women.
— Eddie Reynolds, Theatre Eddys Read full review