Whether or not you will enjoy Sovereignty at Arena Stage depends on why you value theatre. If you attend this show with the intent to learn, you will find it an incredibly enriching experience. If you go to support underrepresented voices, you will gain great inspiration. But if you arrive with the hope to feel deeply, you may leave the theatre wanting more than this production can give.
Let’s start with the many things this show gets right. Sovereignty, a new commission by Arena Stage directed by Artistic Director Molly Smith, fits perfectly into the theatre’s Power Plays series, and seamlessly matches the mission of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. The story follows the present-day efforts of Sarah Polson (Kyla Garcia), a fiercely intelligent Cherokee lawyer, to restore Cherokee Nation jurisdictional rights to prosecute non-Native abusers of Cherokee women on ancestral lands through Cherokee Law. In parallel with her story, the audience follows the legal efforts of Sarah’s ancestor, John Ridge, in the 1830s to defend the sovereignty of his people to uphold their laws and Constitution. The oral histories of these moments in time, and the preceding events and consequences, span an impressive range of hundreds of years.
Although the play switches swiftly between timelines, it never loses the audience. A sleek, contemporary white set designed by Ken MacDonald pairs beautifully with Robert Wierzel’s lighting and Mark Holthusen’s intricate projections to keep the audience anchored in time.
The shifting layers of Constitutional texts, Native American artwork, and a striking image of the Supreme Court provide much-needed movement to the production, while indicating that, despite the passage of time, patterns of human behavior repeat themselves. The highlight of this production is Linda Cho’s superb costume design. Audiences will swoon at the tailored suits and adornments of the Native American men, and marvel at the seamless costume changes between time periods.
Further, the depth of historical knowledge conveyed by this play astounds. Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle’s brilliance saturates the script, and every line of dialogue drips with her expertise as an accomplished attorney, theatre maker, and direct descendant of the Ridge family. Even the most seasoned lawmakers and political scholars will leave astounded by how much they learn about the Violence Against Women Act and the Treaty of New Echota. As promised, the play left me reeling about desperately incomplete narratives being taught in contemporary high school history classrooms across the country.
To see a play with such a comprehensive understanding of Native American history is not only rewarding, it’s groundbreaking; Nagle’s play is one of the first written by a Native American to appear on stage at a major regional theatre on the eastern seaboard.
The production lands at a crucial moment in history when concepts of citizenship and women’s rights are dangerously regressing. Now more than ever, the production does a service to Washington, D.C. by expanding the perspectives we see on stage and amplifying diverse voices. The play also channels the recent Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and abuse by the project’s non-Native workers against Native women. To see the stories of Native American revolutionaries on stage in two time periods reminds us how hard Native women and men have fought to defend their sovereignty for generations before Twitter hashtags and digital activism. Even more, it is inspiring to see numerous parts played by skilled Native American actors, particularly Andrew Roa, who gives captivating performances in Cherokee and English as two patriarchs, Major Ridge and Roger Ridge Polson.
Yet for all the intellectual merits and activist resonance of the play, the massive scope of its ambition also weakens its emotional impact. In the attempt to capture the nuance of major political conflicts from present-day Georgia to Washington, D.C., the play rushes through the most pivotal internal struggles facing each character. As a result, we know more about the Cherokee Nation Constitution than we do about the personal motivations of people governed by it.
In scene after scene, director Molly Smith blocks groups of lawyers and politicians in lines or huddled around tables to voice copious exposition about their nation’s legal history. While this format may lend itself to a tradition of oral history, it drowns the audience in legal jargon while giving us little to see. The pace of the play hurtles forward, demonstrating how much history Nagle wishes to convey in a limited period of time. But when we reach a potential emotional turning point for a character, the scene is not given the time and space to breathe. John Ross (Jake Waid) must choose allegiance to the Ridges or to his principles; Sarah Bird Northrup (Dorea Schmidt) must decide whether to abandon her husband’s home; Sarah Polson must re-evaluate her priorities when the law she has studied affects her personal reality — yet each of these scenes feels fleeting, without a firm root in the inner conflict of fully-formed characters.
In particular, the time jumps short-change the development of Ben (Joseph Carlson) and Sarah Polson’s relationship. In the first act of the play, we see Ben as a caring, if awkward, suitor to Sarah Polson. In the second act, he appears on stage as a horrifyingly abusive fiance to Sarah. Yet his transformation offset in the time jump defies belief and feels unduly escalated. The audience can more easily comprehend the morphing relationships of Ben and Sarah to their governments than to each other.
closes February 18, 2018
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The scenes in which the play does allot time to small human moments feel the most universal. When fiercely argued dates and treaty names fade from the audience’s memory, the emotional impact of quiet images will linger, such as injured John Ridge’s crawl across the floor, Sarah Bird Northrup’s loving smile at the description of a napkin, Roger Ridge Polson’s jokes in the kitchen with his infant grandson, and the deeply symbolic debates of whether to eat chocolate or vanilla wedding cake and apple or pumpkin pie. With a more even balance between public and private moments, the production could provide both expansive education and lasting empathy.
The chasm between Native American experiences and American consciousness stretches so wide that the heavy burden of the artists’ responsibility feels palpable. This production aches to make you understand stories of Native American women who continue to suffer from extremely high rates of abuse by non-Native people on their lands, with no legal recourse. But the production does not share that weight of responsibility with the audience until nearly the end of the play.
In Sovereignty’s most moving scene, Sarah Polson directly addresses the audience as though they held the power to decide a Supreme Court case. Sarah challenges D.C. theatregoers to uphold Sarah’s sovereignty over her own body and the Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty over their lands and people. Like any good lawyer, she raises the stakes of a technical law by inviting empathy with her personal experience. In delivering this speech outward, Sarah charges the audience to pursue justice when they exit the theatre and re-enter the institutions of Washington, D.C. Hopefully Sovereignty will break a wave of Native American stories upon regional theatres across the country and usher in a multitude of voices to move the hearts and minds of all Americans.
Sovereignty by Mary Kathryn Nagle . Directed by Molly Smith . Cast: Joseph Carlson, Kyla Garcia, Michael Glenn, Jake Hart, Kalani Queypo, Andrew Roa, Dorea Schmidt, Todd Scofield, and Jake Waid . Associate and Text Director: Anita Maynard-Losh . Set Design: Ken Macdonald . Costume Design: Linda Cho . Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel . Sound Design: Ed Littlefield . Projection Design: Mark Holthusen . Wig Design: Jon Aitchison . Fight Director: Lewis Shaw . Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clarke . Vocal Coach: Zach Campion . Stage Manager: Susan R. White assisted by Trevor A. Riley . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Kate Colwell.