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The big-city liberals who make up the lion’s share of habitual theatergoers seldom have anything nice to say about Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch. It’s hard not to be miffed at the Donald Trump appointee who filled a SCOTUS vacancy that then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held open for more than a year to deny President Barack Obama a third court pick (even though Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died more than 11 months before Obama’s second term expired). But Gorsuch did vote with the high court’s liberal bloc in McGirt v. Oklahoma in 2020, wherein he invoked the United States’ history of reneging on its agreements with Native Americans when he concluded that much of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a reservation of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and therefore Federal and tribal authorities, not the state, have jurisdiction there. “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise” was how Gorsuch began his opinion for the 5-to-4 majority.
Cherokee Nation activist, attorney, and playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle quotes the phrase with reverence in her powerful new solo show dramatizing the life of her mother-in-law, Creek Nation organizer and activist Ella Jean Hill Chaudhuri.
You could be forgiven for finding this a bit confusing. Hill died in 1997, a generation before Gorsuch began writing that opinion, so connecting the dots between her life and Gorsuch’s epigram requires some explanation. Hill—whose Oklahoma childhood was marked by frequent conflict with White immigrants “who don’t know where their umbilical cord is buried,” as Nagle puts it in her 90-minute show—spent her life advocating for the Native sovereignty that the 2020 high court ruling eventually affirmed.
Attribution gets tricky here, because Nagle is both the playwright and—following the last-minute departure of another actor who had been cast to play Hill—performer resurrecting a woman who died 20 years before Nagle met and eventually married Hill’s son. In writing her script, Nagle drew heavily on an unpublished biography of Hill written by her father-in-law, as she told City Paper reporter and critic Jared Strange. Finally, Nagle’s artistic career has run in parallel to her legal one, where she has focused on matters of tribal sovereignty and on helping Native women find justice in cases of abuse and sexual assault.
Nagle’s plays are so unapologetically preachy she blurs the line between dramatist and lecturer: Sovereignty, which five years ago made her the first Native American playwright to get her work produced at Arena Stage, was didactic and dry enough to earn an unusually bitchy review (“All dramaturgy and no drama!”) from a veteran City Paper critic universally beloved for his fair-mindedness and even temperament, not to mention his innate generosity, prodigious talent, sparkling hygiene, unerring fashion sense, and Olympian skill at parallel parking. Eighteen months later, Nagle got into it with San Francisco Chronicle critic Lily Janiak, who had a similar reaction to Sovereignty, writing that its characters’ “moves are as predictable as the broad outlines of history or come out of nowhere, arbitrarily imposed on them by a playwright’s conceit instead of emerging from how real people would actually act.”
Nagle made clear in a 2021 New Yorker profile that she rejects the idea that the educational payload of her plays—to combat Native American erasure—inhibits them artistically. Wherever one comes down on that question, it’s evident she’s much more skilled as a litigator than she is at creating believable imaginary characters, which means she wins our minds if not always our hearts.
Fortunately, the first-person, direct-address format of On the Far End solves a great many of Sovereignty’s problems. Nagle’s earnest performance of her mother-in-law’s life story is compelling and persuasive, not because Nagle has believably transformed herself for 90 minutes into another person, but because there is no question she believes every syllable she speaks.
And Hill’s life was filled with incident: Repeatedly running away from compulsory attendance English-language boarding schools where she was beaten if she spoke in her native tongue of Creek, marrying a Bengali scholar (an actual Indian) at age 20 and raising two mixed-race children in the 1950s and 1960s, getting the first tribal clinic opened in Tuscon, Arizona, so Native American city dwellers would not have to travel to remote facilities to get the medical care to which they were entitled. And like her future daughter-in-law, Hill was a playwright, too.
Paige Hathaway’s set conveys the political and natural worlds Hill inhabited with equal zeal. A desk piled with carved memento boxes sits surrounded by wild grasses and twisted old trees. The blue cast of Emma Deane’s lighting design evokes a prolonged dusk, as though Hill is holding the darkness at bay through sheer force of will. But is it Hill’s will or Nagle’s?
One of the esteemed parties who had a higher opinion of Sovereignty than City Paper was Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who reportedly sent Nagle an admiring note after seeing the play in 2018. Ginsburg’s death in 2020, two months after she’d voted with Gorsuch on McGirt v. Oklahoma, and four and a half years after Obama’s pick was denied, confirmed for us that McConnell’s Republican majority could fill a Supreme Court vacancy in a matter of weeks when they wanted to. The hypocrisy of the powerful is mighty. Jean Hill knew it, and Mary Kathryn Nagle knows it too.
On the Far End, written and performed by Mary Kathryn Nagle and directed by Margot Bordelon, runs through May 7 at Round House Theatre. roundhousetheatre.org. $39–$81.