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Sovereignty ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 30, 2018 

Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has always taken risks.  With the staging of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play on the fraught history of the Cherokee Nation, she has gone where no other major theater has gone before.  Smith’s direction of Sovereignty adds to her series of innovative “Power Plays” and is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. 

Nagle, an activist lawyer and direct descendant of John Ridge and Major Ridge, plunges headlong into the genesis of Indian country’s deepest divide exploring both her ancestors, the Ridge family, as well as Chief John Ross who were instrumental in forming the early agreements that determined the future of the Cherokee nation.  But which bore the responsibility for allowing President Andrew Jackson to set in motion the Trail of Tears?  Who had the blood on their hands of the thousands who perished on that forced march to Oklahoma in the dead of winter?  Who capitulated to Jackson’s demands and why?  Nagle addresses these and other questions with eyes wide open and starts in a casino in modern-day Indian country.

(L to R) Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sarah Polson (Kyla García) is a young Yale graduated attorney determined to reverse a 1978 Supreme Court decision that strips native communities of their right to prosecute non-Indians on their reservations, a decision that violates tribal sovereignty.  She is feisty and whip smart and along with another lawyer, Jim Ross, takes on the case.  Sarah is a Ridge descendant, but keeps her ancestral past well hidden from Jim.  Though their ancestors were well-intentioned tribal leaders, both the Ridges and the Rosses have been accused of poor decisions, greed in the case of the Rosses, and worse, capitulation.  To this day each family still blames the other for mistakes made.  It is up to Sarah and Jim to right the wrongs of the past.

(L to R) Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie), Michael Glenn (Samuel Worcester/Mitch) and Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

At the casino in Oklahoma Sarah meets Ben, a non-Indian SVU cop and friend of Mitch (Michael Glenn who also plays Samuel Wooster), Sarah’s brother.  Ben intervenes in a bar fight when Watie, Sarah’s current boyfriend gets rough with Sarah and the two hit it off.

The action swings back and forth between the 1830s to modern day as it grapples with the past through the years of U. S. Government policies of expansionism, Cherokee removal, broken treaties, intermarriage, and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA Section 904) to allow for the prosecution of whites committing crimes against women on Indian lands.  After being abused by her lover Ben, Sarah’s goal is to change that.

(L to R) Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben), Kalani Queypo (John Ridge) and Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

How Nagle manages to include as many instrumental players in this historical drama is more than clever.  Because the play toggles between 19th and 21st centuries, this fine cast plays multiple roles with ease and authenticity.  There is Flora, a Ridge cousin (Dorea Smith), Andrew Jackson and Ben (Joseph Carson in dual roles), John Ross and his son Jim both played by Jake Waid, Major Ridge and Roger Ridge Poison (both played by Andrew Roa), and Elias Boudinot (Jake Hart who also plays Watie).

(L to R) Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

To enhance the authenticity and period details, both Ken Macdonald’s set and Linda Cho’s costumes incorporate design elements of Cherokee culture. 

If you aren’t up on the history of the Cherokee people, I’d suggest Steve Inskeep’s brilliant book, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson Cherokee Chief John Ross and a Great American Land Grab.

Powerful, informative and important.

Through February 18th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

For more info on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival visit online.

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