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Sovereignty, a world premiere play that Arena Stage presents as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, is all dramaturgy and no drama. It’s dowdy, fibrous, educational, well-meaning, and has an entertainment value that can be measured in microns.
The shameful history it publicizes—of white supremacy as U.S. policy—should unquestionably be a louder part of the national conversation than it is. And the author, Mary Kathryn Nagle, is no tourist: She’s a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a direct descendant of two of the major characters in her play, and an attorney. Her caseload involves matters of tribal sovereignty, and more specifically the high incidence of domestic violence and sexual assault suffered by Native women, in part because of a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that took away tribal nations’ power to prosecute crimes committed by non-Natives on tribal land. Nagle has another play about Native Americans, Manahatta, set to receive its world-premiere production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in March, and no plans to withdraw from her full-time legal practice. She’s driven, she’s smart, she’s altruistic. It brings me no joy to observe that when it comes to playwriting, she’s one hell of a lawyer.
Sovereignty’s parallel narrative bounces back and forth between the 1830s and the near future. In the 19th century scenes, Kalani Queypo plays John Ridge—Nagle’s direct ancestor—who marries a white woman, Sarah Bird Northrup (Dorea Schmidt). Along with his father, Major Ridge (Andrew Roa), he negotiates the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to vacate tribal land east of the Mississippi. Both Ridges were assassinated in 1832 as retaliation for what some in their tribe saw as capitulation to the U.S. government.
In the contemporary portion, Kyla Garcia plays Sarah Polson, an Ivy League-educated attorney who comes home to Oklahoma to work for a Cherokee Nation prosecutor who is descended from the Rosses, who opposed the Ridges and their treaty. She begins dating Ben, an Oklahoma Highway Patrolman (I think), played by Joseph Carlson, who’s much stronger in the 1830s scenes where he portrays President Andrew Jackson.
In each part of the story, the Cherokees fight to implement legal rulings that have theoretically bolstered their rights: In the 1830s, its Worcester v. Georgia; in the contemporary part its the Violence Against Women Act, which is in fact up for reauthorization this year. In the second act, Nagle makes the political personal—well, even more personal—by having Sarah fall victim to an assault. Her notion of equating the invasion of tribal lands with the violation of a Native woman by a white man is either an inspired idea or a hoary one, but in narrative terms it requires a character who up until that point has shown no predilection for drunkenness or violence to get abruptly loaded and beat and rape his spouse. Implausible? Surely not; seemingly polite men commit acts of sexual violence all the time. Nagle may have worked on cases like this one. But it still feels schematic, like the characters are just doing what the playwright needs them to do.
The problem, I think, is that Nagle’s characters—both the historical figures she’s reanimated and the ones she’s invented for the half of the play that’s set in the years 2018 to 2020—are all abstractions. In the contemporary scenes especially, they walk around like sentient PowerPoint decks, spouting legal precedents and statistics without pausing for breath. Having the cast address the audience directly rather than pretending to talk to one another might be a better way to get through the reams of legal and historical exposition Nagle has given them to chew through. (It worked in Lisa Loomer’s Roe.) These big, sticky fact-dumps make good professional actors sound like amateurs, and it isn’t fair. And Nagle has a nasty habit of ending each scene on its clunkiest line.
“If I’m correct, this is the first time the Cherokee Nation has ever won in the Supreme Court,” someone declaims near the end of the evening. But that’s not how people who know one another talk to one another, and it’s proof that Nagle has chosen the wrong medium to deliver her very worthy message. I hope she’ll write an op-ed, or a nonfiction book, or a series of op-eds promoting her nonfiction book about the mistreatment the Cherokee Nation has suffered at the hands of an indifferent and complicit U.S. government. And I hope it’s a bestseller.
To Feb. 18 at 1101 6th St. SW. $56–$91. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.