Law of Nations at Arena Stage, Mary Kathryn Nagle's 'Sovereignty' Set out to Reclaim Native Stories-And Bodies

By Wren, Celia | American Theatre, April 2018 | Go to article overview

Law of Nations at Arena Stage, Mary Kathryn Nagle's 'Sovereignty' Set out to Reclaim Native Stories-And Bodies


Wren, Celia, American Theatre


"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 PC, 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 bv 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 Poison, 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. …

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