BWW Review: Personal, Political, Powerful: DeLanna Studi's AND SO WE WALKED, at Portland Center Stage
When DeLanna Studi was in elementary school, she told her class in Oklahoma that she was an Indian, and her teacher replied that Indians were extinct. About 2,000 miles away but around the same time, I was sitting in a similar classroom learning about Manifest Destiny, the idea that God wanted white people to expand their dominion and spread capitalism and democracy across North America.
This is what stayed in my mind as I watched AND SO WE WALKED, Studi's one-woman show now playing at Portland Center Stage, and it has stuck around since -- the fact that the elementary school history curriculum in the 1980s taught me how special my people are and taught Studi that her people no longer exist.
(According to the 2010 census, 5.2 million people in the United States identified as either American Indians or Alaska Natives. For a size comparison, that's more than the population of over half of U.S. states. For a power comparison, it's also more than the membership of the NRA.)
Many years later, Studi and her father retraced their family's steps along the Trail of Tears. For those of you who got the same history education I did, the Trail of Tears was a particularly dark moment in U.S. history. Between 1831 and 1850, President Andrew Jackson ordered the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans from the southeastern part of the country to what is now Oklahoma. Studi's family is Cherokee, and their ancestors were among those who were relocated.
For six weeks, Studi and her father walked and drove the 900-mile route, engaging with members of the Native American tribes they met along the way. AND SO WE WALKED is Studi's account of that journey. It's part memoir, part history lesson, and part folklore.
AND SO WE WALKED is woven together wonderfully. It moves seamlessly back and forth in time and between real life and the world of myths, legends, and dreams. It also combines Studi's struggle to understand her indigenous identity with struggles familiar to all, like dating and managing family relationships. It's clear at every moment that this is a very personal play. At the same time, simply the fact of Studi telling her story seems like a political act. These two elements combined make the show intensely powerful.
John Coyne's set and Norman Coates' lighting and projection design contribute as well. The set is composed of rope-like, cloud-like structures upon which are projected various images and colors, which enhance the emotional richness of the production. It's beautiful.
AND SO WE WALKED runs at Portland Center Stage through May 13. I recommend it very highly. More details and info here.
Photo credit: Bert VanderVeen