“There’s a lot of humor in the play. Don’t be afraid to laugh,” artistic director Molly Smith said to spectators seated in an Arena Stage rehearsal room on a brutally cold January afternoon. The circumstances seemed to demand such encouragement. Performed for designers and other need-to-know folk, the pre-tech run-through for Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty had begun with a fight call in which, in slow motion, with matter-of-fact professionalism, actors had practiced a sexual assault and a racial-slur-charged drunken brawl. Not exactly mirth-inducing fare.
Then, too, there were the play’s weighty themes: law, justice, politics, and the inherent rights of the Cherokee Nation. A buzzed-about world premiere, Sovereignty was an installment in Arena Stage’s Power Plays initiative, a project designed to commission and develop 25 new works exploring politics and influence in American history. Sovereignty would also be one of the marquee titles in the 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival in and around Washington, D.C., which ran Jan. 4-Mar. 4.
As if that context didn’t provide enough gravitas, Sovereignty was, on one level, an effort to address and correct the culture’s habit of ignoring, or at best misrepresenting, the Native American experience. “This will be, for many people, probably the most exposure they’ve ever had to anything Cherokee,” playwright Nagle had observed in an interview that morning. For this reason, she added, the play “needs to be as authentic as possible.”
Nagle has a rare vantage on the matter. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she is not only a playwright but also a lawyer who has written briefs for federal appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. As a partner with Pipestem Law P.C., she has focused on working to safeguard tribal sovereignty and the inherent rights of Indian nations. In her view, this work is by no means separate from her playwriting, since the realms of law and representation are entwined. To erase or debase a people’s stories paves the way for the undermining of their rights, she suggests. Conversely, to tell a people’s story authentically is to take a step toward preserving those rights. As a lawyer, she said, “I’m doing work to restore the sovereignty and jurisdiction that the Supreme Court has taken away [from Native people]. You can’t do that work unless you change the narrative that allows the court to take it away. And part of that narrative is erasure! So to me, that’s a responsibility that I have.”
If the Oklahoma-based 35-year-old felt a professional obligation to make Sovereignty ring true, she also had a personal stake in the matter: Her script recalls a turning point in the lives of her great-great-great grandfather, John Ridge, and his father, Major Ridge, who reached a risky decision to sign a treaty with the U.S. government in 1835.
Just a few years prior, in Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court had ruled for Cherokee Nation sovereignty. But the U.S. government, then led by President Andrew Jackson, declined to enforce that 1832 decision. So, under pressure from whites who coveted Cherokee land in the East, the Ridges signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which ceded Cherokee land east of the Mississippi in return for payment plus land further west. The treaty—which paved the way for the Trail of Tears—was hugely controversial among the Cherokee people and was opposed by the tribe’s principal chief, John Ross. In 1839, after relocating west, the Ridges were assassinated.
Sovereignty doesn’t just revisit a 19th-century story, though: It also imagines a contemporary tale (technically, set a couple of years in the future) about a Cherokee lawyer named Sarah Polson, who champions Cherokee Nation sovereignty. This plot strand turns on the historic 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which, when renewed and expanded in 2013, gave tribal courts jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who assaulted women on tribal land. In Sovereignty, a case involving such an assault goes all the way to a Neil Gorsuch-era Supreme Court. The play darts back and forth in time, paralleling its 19th- and 21st-century court cases, as well as two bittersweet interracial love stories.
Nagle explained that she regularly makes a point of including contemporary Native American narratives in plays that otherwise depict history. “I feel I cannot write a play that only takes place in the past, because that could, and would, likely promote the narrative that we [Native Americans] only exist in the past,” she said.
The ingredients of Sovereignty have been brewing in Nagle’s brain for a long time. Born in Oklahoma and raised in part in Missouri and Kansas, she grew up hearing about the Ridges, whose portraits hung in her grandmother’s home, and stories about Worcester v. Georgia fed her aspirations to a legal career. In law school, while studying the many milestone legal cases that hurt the Native American cause, she began to mull writing a play that would “deconstruct” the myth of Native inferiority that arguably underlay such rulings.
Enter Molly Smith, who was on the lookout for vibrant, diverse American works for Arena Stage. As it happens, the artistic director has long been interested in Native American issues and culture: Prior to assuming Arena’s leadership in 1998, she headed Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, where she oversaw productions drawing on indigenous voices and stories. What’s more, Smith’s partner, Suzanne Blue Star Boy, hails from the Yankton Sioux tribe of South Dakota.
Smith says she first heard about Nagle’s work from an Arena associate who passed along the playwright’s script Manahatta, about a 21st century securities trader whose ties to New York reach back to Native American history in the area in the 1600s (the play opens next month at Oregon Shakespeare Festival). “I read it, and I thought, this is a very interesting writer,” Smith recalls. A subsequent meeting with Nagle led to Sovereignty’s joining Arena’s Power Plays slate.
For Nagle, it was particularly meaningful to get a production in the nation’s capital, where decisions related to Native American rights have so often been in play. “The sovereign-to-sovereign relationship between Tribal Nations and the federal government—this is the seat of it,” she said.
And there’s that word: sovereignty. The legal concept of sovereignty refers to the right of a people to govern itself. A recognition that Native American tribes are equivalent to sovereign nations stretches back centuries. Around the time of the American Revolution, a Sovereignty character says, “The whole world recognized the sovereignty of Indian Nations, but no one recognized the United States.” Native tribes’ sovereignty was implicitly recognized in myriad treaties that tribes and the U.S. signed over the years.
The concept of sovereignty underpins some landmark Supreme Court cases, including 1978’s Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which ruled that tribal courts did not have jurisdiction over non-Native individuals charged with committing crimes on tribal land. More recently, in Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a 4-4 Supreme Court split, issued months after Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2016 death, left intact a lower court’s ruling upholding the jurisdiction of a Choctaw tribal court to hear a civil suit against the low-cost retailer.
Nagle’s play Sovereignty adds another layer of resonance to the eponymous legal and philosophical concept: The play’s contemporary plotline, which touches on sexual abuse and VAWA, draws a parallel between the idea of nation-level sovereignty and the right of a woman to protect, and determine the integrity of, her own body. In the #MeToo moment, that’s a concept with gale-force urgency.
The final Sovereignty script called for a nine-person cast, with five actors portraying historic and contemporary Cherokee characters and four playing white characters. Casting was a national effort, employing both Skype and a flight to Los Angeles to audition actors—a necessary step for locating Native performers, as Nagle explained, for whom the rule has been to “go to L.A. to find work or don’t find work! Because TV and film have been, for better or for worse, hiring Native actors.”
Also in L.A. is Native Voices at the Autry, a theatre company dedicated to new works by Native American, Alaska Native, and First Nations playwrights. In addition to its developing and producing activities, Native Voices at the Autry has helped cast productions across the U.S., producing executive director Jean Bruce Scott says, including Sovereignty. Native Voices ensemble members Kyla Garcia and Kalani Queypo ultimately signed on to portray, respectively, Sarah Polson and John Ridge, while ensemble member Andrew Roa would juggle the roles of Major Ridge and a Ridge descendent. (Almost all the actors in the production depicted both 19th-century and contemporary characters.)
The show’s other performers included Jake Waid, an actor and Tlingit tribe member whom Smith knew from her time in Alaska, and D.C.-stage fixtures Michael Glenn and Dorea Schmidt. Some of the actors appeared in early workshops of the play; there would be four workshops in all.
Smith had decided to direct the production herself. Asked if she had had any concerns about tackling the project, as a director who is not herself Native American, she said no. “It was a subject that was important to me,” she said. “As a director, I think that’s the most powerful piece [of artistic equipment] you could have.”
As the final production approached, Smith traveled to Oklahoma, where she visited the cemetery that is the Ridges’ final resting place, and got an up-close look at letters written by John Ridge and John Ross. Such preparatory groundwork “nourishes me, in a whole different way,” she said. “I also think that it shows respect for the ideas of the project.”
Smith wasn’t the only one to plunge into research: The show’s designers also sought information that would make Sovereignty both resonant and genuine. They faced other challenges, too, given that Nagle’s storytelling zips around swiftly in time and space, vaulting between locations like President Andrew Jackson’s Oval Office, an 1830s Georgia jail, and a 21st-century Cherokee Nation casino.
The rapid leaps among eras presented an obvious challenge to costume designer Linda Cho. “What you don’t want is actors just to be inundated with costume changes backstage that could throw off their performance. I needed something that could happen seamlessly,” said Cho, a Tony winner for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and a frequent collaborator at Arena.
After putting together her usual “bible” of research, Cho came up with a baseline layering strategy: Male characters wore the same trousers throughout, varying their looks with period-specific upper-body garments or accessories (jackets, neckwear, etc.) over contemporary, generally less-bulky tops. For example, the cravat and calf-length jacket actor Joseph Carlson wore to play a swaggering President Jackson quite concealed the grungy-casual look of his contemporary character, a detective named Ben.
Set designer Ken MacDonald also found a streamlined solution for the script’s zigzags through time and space. An artist who has worked on theatre and opera in the U.S. and Canada, he devised a Sovereignty set that was simple and relatively abstract, with white surfaces for locale-evoking projections (official seals; casino iconography; a newspaper’s front page) designed by Mark Holthusen. Furniture and other elements—Windsor chairs, a bar-counter-like wall, a fold-up day bed with lashed-on pillows—would have a timeless look. And running along the back would be a basket-weave pattern.
“I did an awful lot of research on Cherokee patterns of basket-weaving,” MacDonald said, recalling a process that involved book-buying, online sleuthing, and correspondence with a former Smithsonian-museum staffer. “I wanted to make sure I was really true to [the tradition]. Mary Kathryn Nagle was very concerned—and rightly so—that these were truly Cherokee patterns and weren’t confused with other patterns.”
Sound designer Ed Littlefield did his legwork, too, hunting up Oklahoma bird sounds for a scene set in the cemetery, for instance, and finding sample-worthy music by contemporary Native artists like the Canadian DJ collective A Tribe Called Red. (He credits Candice Byrd, Nagle’s friend and fellow Cherokee theatre artist, with putting him on the right track for the musical sound.) As frequently happens in theatre, during the rehearsal process, some of Littlefield’s early ideas were shelved: A 19th-century printing-press sound he’d been thrilled to track down ultimately gave way to a more stylized drumming that still evoked machinery, for instance. “You find the best sound for the show,” he said.
During the refinement of the designs and other production elements, Nagle wasn’t merely functioning as Sovereignty’s playwright: She was also the production’s Cherokee-culture sounding board, consultant, and expert eye. Asked if all that multitasking was tiring—she was also working her law job full-time throughout—she said yes.
“It’s scary too, because I don’t know everything,” she said. “I don’t! There’s a lot that I don’t know about my own culture.” That’s hardly surprising, she pointed out, since “most Native people in this country today live with the reality that to some extent, or to full extent, their culture and identity have been taken away from them.” She is working on regaining that lost heritage, she said. In the meantime, “What I have to do, in the best way possible, is ask for help and guidance from those that know more than I do.”
For example, she wanted the play to include some dialogue in Cherokee, though she doesn’t speak the language herself. So she consulted friends, who referred her to a Cherokee Nation contact with the familiar name of John Ross; Nagle says he not only translated her English-language lines into Cherokee, but also recorded the Cherokee versions, so that Roa (whose characters sometimes speak in Cherokee) could have a pronunciation model.
Sovereignty rehearsals began in early December. Relocating from L.A. to D.C. for an extended stretch, in the winter, was a significant undertaking, confessed actor Queypo. Still, he said, he never hesitated. Sovereignty is, “in the bigger picture, important to Native people and the history of Native storytelling in the American theatre, where we’ve been invisible for a long time,” he said.
At the end of the first week of rehearsals, Smith gave out a character-development assignment that is standard for her productions: Each performer would do an in-character improvisation introducing touchstones—a significant piece of paper, for instance—from the character’s life. Other cast members watch these improvisations, but, Smith observed, “What I say is, ‘This is just for the actor. There’s no value judgment.’” Queypo said there was “a gasp in the room when she presented the parameters of what we were going to do,” because the assignment would clearly be a source of “pressure,” but also “this activating energy.” On the day in question, Queypo brought in a letter written by young John Ridge to the love of his life, Sarah Bird Northrup, a white school steward’s daughter. Discoveries from the assignment ultimately informed Queypo’s first scene onstage, early in Act One, he said.
Kyla Garcia also found the exercise hugely helpful. “I learned so much about my character,” she said. She brought in a poem that Sarah Polson had written, with a first line running, “Justice in my blood.”
Meanwhile, as preparations for the production ramped up, Nagle found herself amazed at the resources Arena Stage had mustered. Previous airings of her plays had involved smaller theatres. At Arena, “Just the sheer number of people who are touching my show in some form or fashion is really mind-blowing,” she said.
Sovereignty began previews in Arena’s Kreeger Theater on Jan. 12, 2018, with an official opening following on Jan. 24. Writing afterwards in the Washington Post, Peter Marks found the play edifying and so “worthwhile” that it practically deserved a public-service award. But he noted that, because “Nagle’s characters…spend a lot of time explaining themselves, at the expense of the more satisfying kind of revelation that allows an audience to discover on its own who they are,” the material’s dramatic potential was “not fully realized.”
Writing for the online DC Theatre Scene, Kate Colwell marveled at the “depth of historical knowledge” the play conveyed, and noted how resonant the script was at time when citizenship issues, women’s rights, and Native American activism (over the Dakota Access Pipeline, for instance) have been in the news. Still, she thought Nagle’s play rushed past moments that might otherwise have eloquently expressed character. In general, “the massive scope of [Sovereignty’s] ambition also weakens its emotional impact,” she wrote.
Critical quibbles notwithstanding, Sovereignty was ultimately more than just a theatrical production: It became a national event. The New York Times ran a feature on the show. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem participated—alongside Nagle and Smith—in a panel discussion after one performance.
Anyone attending the opening night performance would have spotted another achievement. When the play evoked human foibles and discomfiture—awkward romantic chitchat, kooky mishaps at a casino, a grandfather’s unease with changing diapers—the audience responded almost as if they’d heard Molly Smith’s early January advice. They laughed.
Celia Wren is a former managing editor of this magazine.