By Alec Clayton
This spring, Olympia’s Harlequin Productions is doing something that’s never been done in this area. It’s producing Sovereignty, a historical drama about Native Americans, written and directed by Native Americans, performed by an ensemble of Native and non-Native actors, with direction, set, costume and lighting design by Native artists brought to Olympia from all over the United States.
In Oklahoma in the early 2020s, a young Cherokee lawyer, Sarah Ridge Polson (Josephine Keefe), struggles to preserve the Violence Against Women Act’s restoration of her nation’s jurisdiction in a pivotal case before the U.S. Supreme Court. In doing so, she must wrestle with the actions of her ancestors while confronting the ghosts of her grandfathers. It’s an epic story that jumps back and forth in time from the 1830s through horrors wreaked on the nation by Andrew Jackson (Avery Clark, who also doubles as Sarah’s present-day fiancé). It follows the Cherokee Nation along the Trail of Tears from what is now Georgia to 21st-century Oklahoma. The climax comes when Polson argues her case before the Supreme Court. It’s history, romance and courtroom drama rolled into one.
Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, legal counsel for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a partner at Pipestem Law, a firm specializing in the tribal sovereignty of Native nations and peoples. The majority of her work in court involves fighting for the inherent right of Indigenous nations to protect women and children from domestic violence and sexual assault. She’s also one of the country’s most-produced Native playwrights.
“Most people have never seen an authentic Native person portrayed onstage,” Nagle told New Yorker writer Daniel Pollack-Pelzner. “The more we become humans that non-Natives have to interact with, the more difficult it becomes to justify a legal narrative that dehumanizes us.”
The play is directed for Harlequin Productions by Tucson, Arizona resident Esther Almazán of the Yaqui (or Yoeme) tribe. A recipient of the Gammage Scholar Award, her play Indian School received the Kennedy Center Latinx Playwright Award for Distinguished Achievement. It also won an ariZoni Theatre Award of Excellence and was a semifinalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. Playwright, friend and fellow director Tara Moses asked Almazán if she could give her name to producers looking for directors, including, among others, Harlequin artistic director Aaron Lamb. Lamb, in turn, invited Almazán to direct Sovereignty.
“It a great honor to be directing Nagle’s Sovereignty for Harlequin Productions,” Almazán says, “and I am thrilled to be making theater in Olympia. So much in it is triumphant.”
Keefe, who plays Polson, is a Nez Perce actor and theater artist from Spokane, with a master of fine arts degree in performance from the UCLA School of Theatre, Film, and Television and a bachelor of fine arts degre from The Theatre School, DePaul. Keefe says she’s humbled and honored to explore Nagle’s “powerful work with this incredible team at Harlequin Productions.”
Sovereignty runs approximately two and a half hours. A variety of pieces from the Squaxin Island Museum Library and Research Center will be on display in the State Theater lobby throughout May to coincide with the run.
In light of the significant downward trend in case numbers and state and federal easing of restrictions, Harlequin Productions joins The Washington Center for the Performing Arts in no longer requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter the State Theater. For the safety of live performers, however, all patrons are still be required to remain masked while in the theater.
7:30 p.m. Thursdays – Saturdays;
2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 28
Harlequin Productions at the State Theater,
202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia
$20-$35, with half-price rush tickets at the door 30 minutes before curtain;
pay-what-you-choose performances May 12, 20 and 28