November 05, 2010

Cherokee play adapted into Oklahoma!

Q&A:  Native American Theater and Lynn RiggsThe Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs (1899–1954) was the only Native American dramatist writing for the Broadway stage during the beginning of the 20th century. As a child of the Cherokee Nation, Riggs (above) witnessed the social, legal and cultural changes of his community when, in 1907, Indian Territory became Oklahoma. This childhood experience inspired “Green Grow the Lilacs,” a Pulitzer-Prize nominated drama that was later adapted into the hit musical “Oklahoma!”

On Wednesday, Nov. 17 and Thursday, Nov. 18, the National Museum of the American Indian will host a production of “Green Grow the Lilacs” by the U.S. Naval Academy’s theater troupe, the Masqueraders. Dr. Christy Stanlake, a scholar in Native American theater and director of the Masqueraders, recently spoke with NMAI about how she first learned of Riggs’ work, her students’ reactions to the play and what she hopes her audience will take away from the performances.

Why did you choose to stage this particular play?

I’ve been interested in Riggs for a long time, and the play of his that I really want to direct one day is The Cherokee Night, an amazing, powerful play. Of course, because I direct the USNA theatre program, my play selection is also shaped by our particular audience, an audience that is too young to really understand the more controversial scenes in The Cherokee Night. I chose Green Grow the Lilacs because it appears to be such a “mainstream” play; nevertheless, it includes Native dramaturgical elements that are challenging, highly philosophical, and dramatically haunting.

For almost eighty years, this play has been produced as if it harbors no Native presence, but if you really look at the script, you see characters asserting Native American intellectual traditions, people surviving despite overwhelming political changes, and ceremonial actions relating people to one another and the land around them. This is the beauty of Riggs’ writing. He introduced a Native theatrical language onto the Broadway stage when most portrayals of Native people were pure stereotype. He gave the American Theatre an element of Native dramaturgy, which we are just now beginning to see and celebrate. As far as I know, this is one of if not the only, staging of Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs to use Native American theatrical staging practices, but I am certain that this sort of interpretation of his plays is going to grow to be the norm.
Comment:  For more on Cherokee plays, see Cherokees Revise Museum and Play and Cherokee Play About Warrior Woman.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!