Unto These Hills

In the midst of working through some complicated (for me, anyway) thoughts about history and Miss Saigon–so in the meantime, some exciting news (for me, anyway) about theater and historical representation:

This year, there are radical changes afoot at Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama that has been running for 57 years in Cherokee, North Carolina. Hanay Geiogamah, playwright, founder of American Indian Dance Theater, Native American Theater Ensemble, and Project Hoop, UCLA professor and editor of American Indian Theater in Performance: A Reader, has completely rewritten and restaged the play, now using a cast of 75% local people.

There are no words for how happy this makes me. Unto These Hills was a particularly embarrassing specimin of Americana when I visited in 2001, on a three month long road trip documenting historical and religious outdoor dramas in the U.S.

Historical Outdoor Dramas (annually performed, site-specific theatrical spectacles) tend to be creation myths, celebrating and performing the origins of a localities as we know them (or as local people would like to have them known). Thus, one running theme of my road-trip and a continuing problem of the genre was the representation of Native Americans. How do you justify and celebrate a nation’s stories when they’re built on the bones of whole destroyed races? Nasty savage or noble savage? And just how are you going to paint them white boys red, anyway?^

These questions were answered in as many different ways as the plays. You can even use the plays to trace 70 years of the Indian in American cultural consciousness, as some still use original scripts from the 1930s; most updated themselves piece-meal; and a few, finally feeling the currents of what has been a historical tsunami of increased political consciousness, buoyed themselves into complete reinvention.

On my travels, two plays most clearly held up the polarities of the continuum: Unto These Hills* in Cherokee, NC; and Trail of Tears, in Tahlequah, OK. The former town is home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee nation, descendents of those who managed to hide out and avoid resettlement along the Trail of Tears–the latter is where the Trail landed the Cherokee.

Both original productions (the former, which told the story leading up to the expulsion; and the latter, tracing the expulsion and its aftermath) were written by the same playwright: Kermit Hunter, one of the Carolina Playmakers out of UNC-Chapel Hill, birthplace of the Outdoor Drama movement.

I visited Trail of Tears first. The amphitheater had been dark for four years, as the audience for a poor production of a hopelessly outdated script had, understandably, waned. In 2001, they hired Joe Sears, half-Cherokee playwright of the Greater Tuna trilogy (that’s another story), to write it–they had a local Native American turned big-time actor (I think he was in “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”) direct it–and got the signoff of the Cherokee nation.

The play told the story of the removal and its continuing trauma quite bluntly, using a charming framing device of Thanksgiving Night at the Ziegfeld Follies, where Will Rogers (famous Oklahoman and Cherokee) is starring. Girls begin toparade out, dressed as squaws and pumpkins, when the electricity goes on the fritz. Forced to entertain the crowd, Rogers tells the tale of Stand Watie and John Ross:

The treaty used by the US to forced Cherokee removal was not recognized either by the Cherokee Tribal government or the majority of the Nation; it had been signed by a small cadre of prosperous Cherokee farmers and businessmen (including Watie and his father) who figured that expulsion by whites was inevitable and they might as well cut their losses. This betrayal inevitably led to bloody acts of vengeance and power struggles for years afterwards (with the side impact on John Rollins Ridge, who went on to write Joaquin Murrieta, but that’s another story).

Trail of Tears, when I saw it, still had its colt legs; its earnest anxiety to achieve historical accuracy meant it missed some opportunities for dynamic drama–but essentially, the show was a solid, admirable production; used local professional Native American performers in major roles; and ending beautifully with painted-face ghosts framing the stage, singing Amazing Grace in Cherokee.

Fast forward two weeks into my road trip, to Cherokee and Unto These Hills. The play had been running for 52 years, and the producer, an charming older man with an iron fist, made it clear to me that they had never even vaguely considered updating the script.

Watching Hunter’s original script in action made me realize just why Trail of Tears had no choice but to undergo such a radical transformation. Hunter told the story as dumb, innocent natives being hornswoggled by whites through a corrupt preacher. Voice-over narrations described the Indians’ as “primitive” and “simple” in their connection to nature. There are exotic dances that seem entirely made-up. The protagonists with the most stage time are stock characters in Outdoor Dramas: the kindly honest white folks. The production exacerbated the problem: local Cherokee were used in the most perfunctory, pandering, and thematically offensive way (aka, during the scene when the Preacher cheats those simple Injuns, the simple Injuns were played by solely women and children locals).

Of course Hunter meant to be sympathetic to the Cherokee, I think, but he did so in the only way he knew how: by painting the white folk’s cruelty as dog kicking, as opposed to dispossessing a nation, a developed functioning culture of productive (and quite assimilated) human beings. It was terribly, terribly offensive.

Especially considering that just down the hill was a recently renovated Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Some day I’ll write about what has clearly been a dramatic leap forward in historical museum curation and presentation, but for now, let me just recommend the Cherokee Musuem as an outstanding collection of exhibits, covering 12,000 years of Cherokee history and culture intelligently, innovatively, explicitly and attractively.

To my shock, none of the actors I had spoken to had visited the museum once. The museum and drama had, in fact, begun as different limbs of the same organization. A schism had set them on separate courses, and they moved forward with no connection or communication: the museum resolutely making progress, and the drama, equally resolutely, hovering comfortably where it was.

But the most striking, most extraordinary part of the whole thing, was the utterly disconnected actor culture [Insert actor joke here]: the production was a kind of artists’ summer camp. All summer stock is, but there was this yawning chasm between the play the actors performed nightly and the life they lived on the hill behind the amphitheater, in which they did yoga and ate and partied and produced an impressive variety of cabarets.

Not one actor, from the newbie to the vet, literally had a single thing to say about Unto These Hills.

Think about it. If you’re performing one play every night for three months, especially if it’s specific to the geographical location, at some point, you have to think about what you’re doing. Every actor in every other production I visited (and I visited 27) had thoughts, showed curiosity, a basic awareness (even if it was shallow), and had opinions about the play, the history, and the host community.

The “Indians” at Daniel Boone: The Man and the Legend underwent a sort of Native American boot camp, assiduously learning how to walk and move and behave when in character. The folks at the Blue Jacket Drama burned sage before each performance. My favorite–the actors at Kermit Hunter’s Horn in the West had actually hijacked the production from under the director’s nose, adding a historically researched prequel about the Regulators that artfully filled in later plot gaps in the script.

Not so at Unto These Hills. Whenever I asked about they play, they responded by talking about their artist’s colony. They weren’t even defensive about the atrocious, historically incorrect and politically insensitive clap trap on the stage–the play was a vacuum, a lacuna; it might have well not existed in their aerie.

In fact, the only reason I heard about the recent new brooms sweeping through the place is because the Atlanta actors from Merry Wives have friends who are out of the cushy summer gig they had come to presume upon.

My congratulations to Hanay Geiogamah and Unto These Hills–I wish I could see it–it’s long overdue.

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3 responses to “Unto These Hills

  1. As a veteran of the old Unto These Hills, I agree with almost everything you say. The re-telling is long overdue, and I look forward to seeing the new production in a few weeks (along with other veterans of the old show).Due to family issues, I was not involved with the production when you saw it in 2001, though I was in the year prior to and for three years afterwards.The one comment I would like to add is in reference to the actors who had no sense of the cultural implications of the show they were performing. Most of the non-Cherokee cast, especially the younger members, may not have visited the museum (which is a terrific attraction) and/or may have been focused on the summer resident community moreso than the importance of the “big show” (the in-house reference to the “Unto These Hills” production), so I find it entirely possible that you spoke to no one who did not give the show and the culture respect you would have liked to have seen. However, there were those few non-Cherokee among the cast who had great respect for the story and the people. A few of us were great fans of the museum and the culture as a whole–spending time with local families, eating traditional foods, reading Cherokee history, embracing Cherokee ritual whenever possible. I would also venture to say that not one company member, as misplaced as their priorities may have been and as insensitive as they may have seemed, left at the end of the summer without a greater appreciation for the culture and respect for the people than that with which they had arrived.

  2. A few years ago, I visited and took friends to see the show that was done by some students from Boston. The accent alone was too much and the bloods were used for the group scenes of being moved from place to place. I was crushed because I saw the play 30 years ago when I was young and it made a seriously deep impression on me. Glad things are being made "right".Jonathan – Atlanta

  3. I talked to locals myself after seeing the renovated show. Many elders in the area were insulted by the fact that Tsuli's death was portrayed in a sense that it was done by his own people, but it was in fact done by an American firing squad. The colonial people were put in such a light because it was NEEDED. Americans treated our indegenous people as crap, and I think it should have never been changed.

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