Mary Kathryn Nagle
|Elizabeth Frances, Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, Robert I. Mesa|
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.
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.
|Andrew Roa & Craig Marker|
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.
|Elizabeth Frances & Jake Waid|
|Ella Derwhowitz & Robert I. Mesa|
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.
|Adam McGill & Kholan Studi|
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.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
Sovereignty continues through October 20, 2019 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA, with a special performance April 30 at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco (12 p.m.). Tickets for all performances are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne