There are times when blogging really pays off.
In June, I wrote about the recent big changes happening at Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama in Cherokee, NC. They were finally updating the racist 50-year old script.
This weekend, I received a thorough, measured review of the new production by Keith Best, a former cast member of the old show, who also blogs at Castle of Stink. He currently teaches at Francis Marion University in South Carolina.
(It makes me feel so excited to get this email–like I have a network of spies nationally to see plays and slip me information. Please, if I really have any readers, send me things like this! Blogging is awesome!)
Perhaps I have to set up the context of Outdoor Dramas and their general set of techniques and storytelling style a little more before you know why this is so very interesting, but I don’t have time. This is long, but it’s my blog, and I think it’s fascinating, so there! I’m putting Keith in italics–bold emphasis is mine.
Generally, he descrbes the play as “non-traditional”
…sort of a spectacle-driven, surrealistic, postmodern, deconstructionist view of the old script…
With a greater emphasis on dance
…birds, eagle dance, hoop dance…some of them are certainly spectacular. Lots of lighting effects, sound effects, costumes. The dances seem to have a base of traditional native American footwork, but then contemporary modern movement is added on top of that.
The play structure?
…retained a very basic structure from the old Kermit Hunter script, but just barely.
It seems like they sliced the old script to ribbons, and maintained as major characters only the two Cherokee leads, Kenati and Selu. In Act I, serving as narrators, they tromp through the action of the old story and
are outside of the action of the story when it is told, with a few exceptions. Given that any other characters in the play appear for only a few moments, there is no one character with whom the audience can identify.
We see Major Davis for a moment. We see de Soto for a moment. We see Andrew Jackson for a moment. However, all three of these appear for a very short time and are played by native American actors—the result is these characters have no real depth.
This choice is interesting because it becomes a play about the Cherokee experience (somewhat) as told from the Cherokee point-of-view–therefore, we don’t see Major Davis, but the native-American representation of Davis.
This juxtaposition is interesting, but it bothered me that the representation of Davis is also using the words from Kermit’s old script. This bit of info, of course, is missed by almost everyone but those very familiar with the old show, but it adds a layer of irony that almost comes across as sarcasm.
It doesn’t help that most of the actors in these small roles were barely competent. They walked stiffly and had little vocal range. As a result, these roles appeared to be characterizations, rather than characters with any sense of reality. Given that native-Americans have been portrayed as stereotypical characterizations rather than fully drawn characters for most of cinematic history, this choice, though understood, seems a step backwards to me.
Act I ends with the Trail of Tears:
The intermission came in the middle of what would have been the old scene 12 climax. We get a Trail of Tears told in tableau style, so there is a sense of the entire trail rather than just the beginning, but there are no characters to which we’ve established a connection, so it’s more like an interactive museum display than a dramatic presentation…
Act Two starts with Selu, our female narrator, weeping about the Trail of Tears…
Granted this isn’t traditional storytelling, but if the Trail of Tears should be the climax of the show, then it bothers me that the climax is interrupted by the intermission. I’m sure it’s Hanay’s writing/directorial choice, but it’s a very Brechtian one.
This is followed by a local young Cherokee, Alyssa Sampson, sing a cappela. It is:
the purest emotional moment of the show…it connects the sorrow of the people with the tragedy of the Trail of Tears.
After that, the “play” or “narrative” is finished:
The rest of act two is basically a celebration in dance and music. We see traditional Cherokee costumes onstage, and then cast members slowly appear on stage in modern clothes. The mixture of the “new day, old day” is lovely, but this convention seems out of place without having been introduced earlier in the show and is likely to confuse this audience….It feels like a different show now.
...there is a hoedown and a hoop dance mixing all these time periods together…the hoop dance was basically traditional, though not particularly good hoop dancing–it was almost a stylized eagle dance with hoops held on the shoulders like wings—and was done under black lights…It probably didn’t help that one of the dancers was stumbling and had difficulty with timing, though he clearly knew the choreography. Still, though, there seemed to be a lot of joy and fun in these performances in the second half…
Keith certainly had some strong notes:
Dream-like, in fact, is a good description of the “feel” for the whole show. Pacing was really slow (annoyingly so, at times). I can’t imagine this slow pacing wasn’t a directorial choice, but for the most part, the performers lacked the energy and presence to maintain a slow pace without it seeming “lazy.”
The actor playing Kenati was exceptional. The actress playing Selu was not as strong. She stumbled over lines way too much (but that may be due to the fact that rewrites continue) and didn’t seem to have the presence to fill the large stage as well.