Unto These Hills–Updated!

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.

He also has a terrific sense of the show’s shape as a whole:

The show really feels more like a performance piece you might see attached to a museum exhibit. This show is certainly more a celebration of the Cherokee spirit more than anything—so much so that some felt like it was a party to which we were invited to watch, but not participate.

Keith seemed to enjoy the style for the most part:

…I am honestly amazed that such theatre is available in Cherokee. It seems the type of theatre that would demand a theatrically educated audience–one that wouldn’t expect the typical storytelling of traditional theatre–that you might find at a performing arts center in a major city.

But he seemed concerned for the audience:

even though I think it’s better theatre, I’m not sure the same audience that enjoys the Dixie Stampede would agree…

I do fear…that the typical audience member in Cherokee might not “get it.” If so, the spectacle alone will have to drive the show for them. One member of the audience was overheard saying, “well, I liked it…it didn’t seem to mean anything, but I liked it…”

That being said,

If this show is truly a part of the triangle formed along with the village and the museum, I don’t know that opinions like these will be a problem.

Of major importance is the relationship of the play to its host community:

Of the local tribe members I spoke to, all but one felt the new show did not accomplish what they had hoped…. they were concerned that the story of the Trail of Tears is no longer part of the entire experience with the emotional weight it used to have…

If the show continues to evolve, I have hopes that it will be the type of theatre that challenges the audience while taking them on a journey of the Cherokee experience. It certainly seems to be headed in the right direction to do that…

But backstage:

…backstage is apparently experiencing lots of problems…it was maintained in a manner that we found unsafe and generally sloppysome of the local company seemed to harbor a great deal of ill will toward the staff—so much so that a couple seemed frightened of them.

…I experienced a couple of things after the show (an actress YELLING at a stage manager, a dancer that reeked of alcohol and was clearly intoxicated) that would not just have been frowned upon by staff in previous years, but would have absolutely resulted in someone losing a job… In fact, I would characterize the backstage environment as tense and unfriendly (not to me, but to each other).

Overall, the show is much improved. Unfortunately, very few local native-Americans were used and several of those quit shortly after rehearsals began because they felt they were being treated poorly. The rest of the cast were non-local, non-Cherokee native-Americans. A few white people were on the crew, but none from the previous season. A couple of the tribal matriarchs in the show were literally afraid of the backstage staff. My hope is that these backstage problems will be improved upon next season.

I hope so, too. I wish I could have seen this. Apparently, the production attracted significantly increased numbers this year–we’ll see if they come back.

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