BWW Review: SOVEREIGNTY at Marin Theatre Company is a powerful, fact-based story of the historical and present day plight of the Cherokee Nation.
Written by Mary Kathryn Nagle
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Marin Theatre Company
MTC's moving and powerful West Coast Premiere of Mary Kathryn Nagle's very personal fight for Cherokee Nation rights couldn't arrive at a better time when we're collecting at a tipping point in our country's moral and social soul. Using her history and current court experiences Nagle has crafted both a visceral personal and educational account of the Native American experience that spans the 1820's to today. Under Artistic Director Minadakis' skillful direction and a stellar ensemble cast, Sovereignty unfolds as an exquisite drama evoking cultural pride, the destructive nature of racism and the seemingly impossible situations the characters must face.
In present day, Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) is a young Cherokee lawyer fighting to restore her Nation's jurisdiction after the disastrous overturning of Cherokee Nation sovereignty in the 1978 VAWA Supreme Court case (Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191). That ruling overturned jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands, causing a huge spike in violent crimes against Native women on tribal lands. Polson goes to work for Jim Ross (Jake Waid) in the Attorney General's office and is charged with arguing an overturning of Oliphant. It's a matter of intense pride for Polson who is a direct descendant of Major Ridge (Andrew Roa), a 19th century leader of the Cherokee Nation. Her boss just happens to be descendant from John Ross, who had Major Ridge murdered after signing the disastrous 1835 Treaty of New Echota giving up Native American land, a treaty that was rejected by the Cherokee National Council but approved by the U.S. Senate.
The play shifts seamlessly between Sarah's predicament and the backstory of her ancestors excellently staged by Manadakis with cast members shifting between present day characters and historical figures from the 1820's -30's. Jim Ross becomes his great (4x) grandfather John Ross, a man adamant that the Cherokees should not be forced off their tribal lands and committed to the concept of sovereignty that pre-dates the US Constitution. Adam Magill is Sarah's childhood friend and fellow lawyer Mitch, but shines as Samuel Worcester, a humble minister compelled to assist the Cherokee by publishing their widely read newspaper. Craig Marker gets a juicy role as Sarah's fiancée Ben, an SVU cop who ironically becomes involved in a crucial domestic abuse plotline and as the vicious, genocidal President Andrew Jackson. Andrew Roa is the stoic Major Ridge as well as Sarah's somewhat distant father Roger Ridge Polson. Kholan Studi plays Watie, Sarah's brother as well as Elias Boudinot, a Christian convert and supporter of Cherokee rights. Ella Dershowitz plays Sarah Bird Northrup in present time as well as the white Connecticut wife of John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa), Major Ridge's son. Scott Coopwood rounds out this excellent cast as a racist Georgia soldier, a racist drunk bar patron and a bartender who supports his Native American casino bosses.
Nagle's storytelling is authentic, emotionally powerful and extremely relevant. Her personal and communal claims for sovereignty ring in our ears and touch our hearts. When she becomes the victim of domestic abuse by her non-Indian fiancée, it emphasizes the overarching theme of the play- sovereignty over her body and sovereignty of a community against its oppressors. Sarah sums it up when she says, "If he can erase my sovereignty over my body, he can erase sovereignty over my nation."
The superb acting is backed up by Minadakis' direction and the skilled technical crew at MTC; Annie Smart's beautiful scenic design of the tall trees of Georgia, EB Brooks (Costume Designer), Brenda Pipestem (Cultural Consultant), Laura Brueckner (Dramaturg), Danny Osburn (Lighting Designer), Mike Post (Projection Designer) and Sara Huddleston (Sound Designer).
Sovereignty is great theatre with a cause, bringing to light the tragic story of a marginalized population almost brought to extinction. Mary Kathryn Nagle says it eloquently: "At a time when the current President of the United States thinks that the Trail of Tears is nothing more than a joke he can use as a political weapon, it is critical that Americans learn about the attempt, and failure, of President Andrew Jackson to completely eradicate my Nation and all Cherokee Nation citizens on the Trail of Tears." We must never forget our ugly past and support the survivors in their present struggles.
Sovereignty continues through October 20, 2019 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. Tickets available at www.marintheatre.org or by calling 415-388-5208.
Photos by Kevin Berne