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Plenty of artists have a side hustle, but few can claim a dual career as successful and distinctive as that of Cherokee playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle. In addition to crafting hit plays that have appeared at major theaters across the country, Nagle is an acclaimed litigator who counts the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center among her clients. Nagle frequently weaves her artistic and legal practices together, whether by incorporating her experience advocating on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe into her play Crossing Mnisose or crafting pieces such as Sliver of a Full Moon, which was presented at both the Yale Law School and the United Nations.
In her latest theatrical venture, Nagle tackles a subject especially close to home: The story of Jean Chaudhuri, the mother-in-law she never knew, which premieres at Round House Theatre this spring. “The more I learned about her, the more I’m sad I never got to meet her,” Nagle tells City Paper. “Although, having gone on the journey with this play, I feel like in some ways I have.”
Local theatergoers will also get to know Chaudhuri through Nagle’s one-woman show On the Far End, part of the second annual Capital New Play Festival running March 30 through May 7 in Bethesda. Born into the Muscogee (Creek) Nation located in Oklahoma as Ella Jean Hill, Jean attended one of many boarding schools that sought to inculcate Native children into mainstream (read: White American) society. The legacy of those schools became a feature of Jean’s activism in Arizona, where she eventually settled with her husband, Joyotpaul Chaudhuri, who escaped the unrest following the 1947 Partition of India before coming to the United States. Over the course of her career, Jean founded and chaired several advocacy organizations, oversaw the establishment of the first off-reservation Native health clinic in Tucson, Arizona, and earned such distinctions as the American Institute of Public Service’s Jefferson Medal in 1977, as well as several posthumous commendations following her death in 1997.
One of Jean’s signature accomplishments was establishing the Native American Heritage Preservation Coalition in 1986, which fended off efforts to develop lands that once housed a Native boarding school in Phoenix; she subsequently helped preserve those lands for public use in 1992. That victory required the kind of humble work her son Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and former chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, deeply admires. “The humility aspect of activism was very much part of Mom’s belief system, the family’s belief system,” he explains, “one in which you’re very comfortable working behind the scenes and you only put yourself forward if you have to.”
In Nagle, Jonodev found a partner who embodied many of his mother’s qualities. The pair connected at the Federal Indian Law Conference in 2018. Nagle was smitten after seeing Jonodev speak; Jonodev, meanwhile, had already taken notice of Nagle’s burgeoning careers in theater and law. “Somebody who can file briefs in the Supreme Court, but also use plays to change people’s hearts and minds,” he beams, “that’s a real left-brain, right-brain combination you rarely find.”
Ironically, Jonodev had missed Arena Stage’s production of Nagle’s play Sovereignty earlier that year. “Everybody else who is Native in D.C. went to see my play except him; he had TV shows to watch at night,” Nagle says. Nevertheless, the two hit it off over coffee, got married, and now live together in the D.C. area.
As Nagle continued to build a career drawing from a range of Native histories and experiences, Jonodev pushed her to add a Muscogee story to her CV. He even had the perfect subject: Jean, who also happened to be an accomplished playwright, storyteller, and speaker in her own right. But it was not until the couple got some “good medicine,” as Chaudhuri describes it, that the idea really took off. Unbeknownst to Jonodev or his brother Joydev (who goes by Paul), their father had written a biography on Jean, which a family friend discovered while looking for their father’s will after his death in 2020. It quickly became an invaluable source document for Nagle.
Despite his excitement, Jonodev chose to keep his distance while Nagle drafted the play and developed it at Round House. “It’s actually better for me not to have anything to do with anything because MK knows what she’s doing, and the theater knows what they’re doing,” he says. As is often the case, certain details of Jean’s life need to be adjusted, rearranged, and even cut for the purposes of the story. Jean’s sister Richinda, for example, was a major figure in her life but is rarely mentioned in the play. There was also some question as to how much of Jean’s personal struggles the play should cover. “MK and I came down on the side of airing the details of those difficult periods,” says Jonodev, who believes his mother’s story can inspire young activists to persevere and to continue to do the hard work behind the scenes and offline. “We want kids to know that these are life challenges that everybody faces,” he adds.
Telling such a personal story, written from a perspective rarely seen on predominantly White American stages, in a regional theater setting is not without its challenges. In Nagle’s case, it often requires explaining to her collaborators that she might have a different storytelling logic than what they’re accustomed to. “In a lot of Native cultures, we don’t see time as linear as maybe other cultures do,” she offers by way of illustration.
Jonodev adds that expectations can be very different in the Muscogee world. Telling the traditional creation story, for example, is a significant aspect of their annual Green Corn Ceremony, which corresponds to the Muscogee new year. “As a member of the grounds, especially if you can’t speak Creek, you just sit there until it’s done. Sometimes it can take hours. It’s a different approach to the conveyance of knowledge and values in the Creek world than it is in the theater world.”
For their part, the team at Round House, which commissioned On the Far End and included a public reading of it at last year’s Capital New Play Festival, takes their responsibilities very seriously. Dramaturg and Round House Associate Artist Naysan Mojgani, who also serves as festival producer, deliberately downplays the supposed role of dramaturg as “the most knowledgeable person in the room.”
“The reality is, I don’t know what it is to be an Indigenous person in this country,” he says. “At the end of the day, there is a real responsibility to be respectful and bear in mind that I am a guest in this space, and there are other people involved who will know the material and the experience better than I ever will.” To that end, the team has incorporated the insights of Muscogee cultural consultant Paskova Deere, who also happens to be a good friend of Nagle’s.
Among the most significant voices in the room is that of director Margot Bordelon. A specialist in working on new plays, Bordelon is comfortable having the playwright present in what she calls a “co-captain” role. She sees herself first and foremost serving Nagle’s vision. “It’s the director’s responsibility to make the production that the playwright envisions for a first pass—they deserve that.” Sometimes, however, alternative interpretive decisions become necessary, and every rehearsal process throws up new challenges. On the Far End is no exception: two weeks before previews, the production’s original (and only) star bowed out for personal reasons, leaving Nagle to take on the role. Thankfully, she’s in good hands: Bordelon has a background in solo performance and is intimately familiar with the challenge of a single actor needing to hold an audience’s attention on their own.
Above all, Bordelon is attuned to the political importance of the work. This includes not only bringing an understudied topic of American history to the fore—“I feel like I grew up learning about the Japanese internment camps and the Holocaust and even things that happened in Russia on the Steppe, but we never learned about Native American boarding schools,” she says—but wrestling with a difficult collective past. In that sense, it all comes down to Nagle’s two-pronged personal and artistic mission “to get out the argument.”
As members of the small world of Native law, Nagle and Jonodev, who runs a small legal practice in addition to his ambassadorial work, are always having to make the argument for Native sovereignty. In addition to charting Jean’s personal and professional life, Nagle frames On the Far End within the context of McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020), a landmark case that upheld the jurisdiction of tribal courts in eastern Oklahoma, including in cases involving non-Natives who commit crimes on tribal lands. Nagle also played a pivotal role in securing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2022, this time with added protections for tribal sovereignty. Both developments were major victories for Nagle, Jonodev, and their colleagues, but were swiftly undermined by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Castro Huerta v. Oklahoma (2022), which effectively reinstated state and federal jurisdiction over the very same lands McGirt had protected.
For Jonodev, this legal back and forth is all business as usual. “You do feel like you’re caught in that Groundhog Day movie where you’re fighting the same battles and some of the same false narratives that our great-great-great-great grandfathers fought,” he says of the Castro Huerta ruling. “It’s frustrating on some levels, but it’s heartening to know that your great-great-great-great-grandfathers relied on their ancestors to fight their battles as well.”
In On the Far End, Nagle and the team at Round House Theatre help Jonodev’s mother take her rightful place among the ancestors who will continue to inspire those others to keep on fighting the good fight.
On the Far End, written by Mary Kathryn Nagle and directed by Margot Bordelon, makes its world premiere run April 1 through May 7 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. roundhousetheatre.org. $39–$81; pay what you can tickets available.