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
Read Dorea Schmidt’s answers to My Career Choice
Virginia-based actress Dorea Schmidt is a familiar stage presence to Washington, D.C. audiences, seen around town at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Round House, Woolly Mammoth and others. This month, she returns to Arena Stage playing two characters, Sally and Flora, in the upcoming world premiere of Sovereignty. Dorea has appeared previously at Arena Stage in Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof, all three directed by Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith.
Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty, shares the story of Sarah Ridge Polson (played by Kyla García), a young Cherokee lawyer fighting to restore her Nation’s jurisdiction who must confront the ever-present ghosts of her grandfathers. With shadows stretching from 1830s Cherokee Nation (now present-day Georgia) and Andrew Jackson’s White House to the Cherokee Nation in present-day Oklahoma, Sovereignty asks: how far would you go to protect your people and your nation?
Sovereignty is the fourth commission of Arena’s Power Plays initiative and is part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. The majority of theaters in the U.S. have never produced a play by a Native playwright, creating great excitement for Nagle’s play. Dorea is thrilled to be part of the cast for this groundbreaking event. She took time from rehearsals to answer our My Career Choice questionnaire.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Attending the National Theatre Institute. While I had wanted to be an actor before I went, going there turned my tiny flame into a bonfire. The experience changed me and confirmed this was what I wanted to do.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I love so many aspects- meeting interesting people, cultivating my imagination, being a part of the impact that stories can have— but probably what I love most is how much I get to learn. I love the conversations we have in the rehearsal room or after seeing a show. I love that I’m always being challenged to think about other people’s perspectives, history, cultures, politics and my own life. I’m a very curious person and being in theater, there’s always something that blows my mind and makes me eager to know more.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I studied theater at a liberal arts college, but the program was pretty small and I left hungry to fill in the gaps. There are so many areas I want to work on, and new ones cropping up all the time, so I’m always on the hunt for training programs. Other than the National Theatre Institute, I also did an intensive at the National Theatre Conservatory. Most recently, I studied with William Esper at his studio in NYC which was AMAZING. I learned so much; I wish I could go back every week and work with him.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I’ve been very lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband and base of encouraging friends and family, as well as many mentors along the way. My first mentor was a teacher in college who opened my eyes to Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre and eventually advised me in an independent class where I studied them to my heart’s content. I also had a bunch of amazing teachers at NTI and I’ve met many wonderful people here in DC who have opened many doors for me. Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith is my mentor now- she always makes time to talk with me about where I’m at, what I’m wrestling with or want to learn. She challenges me in my work and life and I am so grateful for her.
Kyla García (Sarah Polson) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in Sovereignty (Photo by Tony Powell)
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I love being home and I’ve definitely had moments of wishing I had a 9-5 job so my schedule would be more predictable and fit with my family’s. But ultimately, I keep coming back to how much I love being in theater and wouldn’t want a life without it. I love acting so much- the craft itself, the conversations that come out of the stories I get to tell, the changes it makes in me, the people I get to meet and work with. There’s nothing else that I’d rather do.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that- I’m not sure if it has- haha! I do feel very grateful, though, for the opportunities I’ve been given in this city. I’ve gotten to work with lots of great theaters and on many different types of productions – from musicals to plays to premiering new works. I’ve gotten to return to theaters and have built relationships with so many artists; it makes it really fun to be cast in a show and already know/have worked with some of the people involved. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a member of an ensemble, and I feel in a way like I have that now working in DC; it’s just that the ensemble is a lot bigger than I imagined.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think an ongoing challenge is to keep punching out the box that others (and even me) put myself in. Although I think it’s a more open city than some others, it’s still easy in DC to get pegged as one thing and then that’s what your career ends up being. For instance, it’s easy to get locked into musicals or plays, and once you’ve done a bunch of one it’s hard to be seen for the other. For me, I want to stretch and surprise others, but mostly myself. We are all so complex and I find that even a character that I feel most different from, I can usually find a connection with, so I never want to limit myself. I never want to be comfortable. I like having to go after something that feels scary and like it will take effort. So, it requires a constant vigilance and fight on my part to say no to certain projects. I have a vision journal of projects I want to do and artists that inspire me in this way, so I look back to that when I’m feeling discouraged or I need an extra kick of passion.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Tenacity. In life, and on stage. Staying fiercely committed to my standards for myself and my goals. And to the journey of it all – not getting swept away by comparing myself to others or expectations of where I “should” be in the rehearsal process or in my career. But rather staying grounded and clear in what I want and feel called to. It also is invaluable in rehearsal and allows me to try new things and play around.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
It’s hard to answer that because I don’t really think of accomplishments so much as experiences. And which experiences I’m most grateful for/have had a significant effect on my life. For me, each of those experiences is like a new chapter of my story. So, in that light, I’d say working on Sovereignty is my latest chapter title. I’ve been deeply moved as we’ve been studying the Cherokee people and inspired by the lives, beliefs, and perspectives of so many other Native men and women I’ve been introduced to – both past and present. I’m seeing our history, our world, my place in our world in such a new way because of them. I knew at our first Sovereignty workshop last January that I had to be a part of this project, and I’m so grateful that I am. It’s been life changing for sure and I’m cherishing every moment.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Constantly check in with yourself to hear what you want and need. There will be stretches of no “work,” so how do you make opportunities for yourself, how do you feed your soul and fan your passion? Everyone has their own path – and no other actor can really tell you how to get where you want to be. Above all, I’m working on embracing life as a journey. I’ve known people who were on Broadway for years and then had no work for years after that, and the other way around, too! You never “arrive” because we’re always moving and growing, so enjoy the ride; and if you’re not enjoying it, ask yourself what can you do to change it.
For more information:
Dorea Schmidt’s website
Arena Stage’s website