Sovereignty is the power that a country has to govern itself or another country or state. Collins English Dictionary
When a drunk white man wearing a Trump T-shirt stumbles into a bar on Cherokee lands and is subsequently evicted, we have our first hint that Mary Kathryn Nagle won’t hesitate to include current politics into her play, Sovereignty, now playing at Arena Stage. Indeed, parallels between the administrations of Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump are plentiful. Jackson made removing the Cherokee nation from ancestral lands in Georgia his campaign promise, just as Trump continues to pursue strict immigration policies, including his central campaign promise, a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. (Jackson’s portrait is prominently displayed in the White House and was in the background in November as Trump honored a group of Native American code talkers during World War II.)
(L to R) Andrew Roa, Kalani Queypo, and Jake Hart
Sovereignty, which flashes between present day and the 1830s, stresses that the battles Native Americans continue to fight are not over. (While the play attempts to educate the audience about these past and current events, reading up on this troubling part of our nation’s history beforehand is recommended.) Jackson remained focused on relocating the Cherokees farther west, even defying U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall’s 1832 decision in Worcester v. Georgia that held Native American nations were “distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights,” and thus were entitled to federal protection from the actions of state governments that infringed on their sovereignty.
Those within the Cherokee nation were divided on what to do. Supporters of Chief John Ross defended the rights of the Cherokees to stay on their lands, while followers of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, known as the “Ridge Party,” saw relocation as inevitable and signed the Treaty of Echota which set out the conditions for removal. (Nagle is a direct descendant of Major Ridge and John Ridge.)
Joseph Carlson and Kyla García
In Sovereignty, those divisions continue to reverberate when Sarah Polson (Kyla García) returns to the reservation where she grew up. Now an attorney, she’s come back to help her people. Her professional and personal life will never be the same. She becomes engaged to a white man, Ben (Joseph Carlson, who also appears as President Jackson), while also using her legal talents to fight for a continuation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In the 1978 decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the Supreme Court ruled that tribal courts did not have jurisdiction over non-Indians who committed crimes on tribal lands. Justice William Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, with a dissenting opinion written by Justice Thurgood Marshall who was joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. In Playwright’s Notes included in the program, Nagle says that following that court decision, violence against Native American women on tribal lands “skyrocketed,” since non-Indian offenders knew they wouldn’t be prosecuted for their crimes. In 2013, Congress passed VAWA, restoring part of tribal nation’s jurisdiction. What will happen in the future remains a question.
All of this is a lot to digest in a two-hour play. It helps that the set is minimal (design by Ken MacDonald), and that Director Molly Smith maintains a brisk pace between scenes. (While the first act suffers from information overload, the second act unfolds more smoothly.)
García is the centerpiece of the play (channeling the playwright all the way), and she’s more than up to the task. A slight figure in a bright red dress, she doesn’t shy away from debating tribal chiefs or resisting her fiancé’s attempts to focus on her wedding rather than the law. While Carlson is believable as Ben, he’s less so as Jackson.
Kalani Queypo and Dorea Schmidt
Dorea Schmidt, the only other woman in the cast, handles with aplomb her two roles: present day Flora, who has several lines that inject a bit of comic relief into the action; and, Sarah Bird Northrup, the white woman who marries John Ridge and serves as his support during dark times. As John Ridge, Kalani Queypo plays the role of the statesman, trying to negotiate a compromise that will save his people, yet realizing that doing so may make him a target. Andrew Roa is a standout playing Major Ridge, where he delivers his dialogue in the Cherokee language, and as Roger Ridge Polson, Sarah’s doting father, who shows his softer side with his grandchild. Jake Hart is terrific as Elias Boudinot, in the past, and Watie, in the present.
The one act of violence in the play is jarring and, while making a valuable point, also strains credibility with regard to the motivations of various characters. Still, that scene certainly brings home what’s at stake for women on tribal lands who may not be able to depend on the law to protect them.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Written by Mary Kathryn Nagle
Directed by Molly Smith
1101 Sixth Street, SW