If you’re short a non-Euro history credit this semester, Sovereignty, now at Arena Stage, should definitely count for one.
A story of the Cherokee nation, the Trail of Tears, and the intricacies of modern legal jurisdiction (seriously), this new play — part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival — has a lot it wants to teach you. In fact, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s script starts lecturing right from the word go. Granted, it turns out I had much to learn about Worcester v. Georgia and the Treaty of New Echota. But Sovereignty, directed by Molly Smith, is better as a history lesson than as theatre.
The play tells two stories in tandem: One from the 1830s of Major Ridge (Andrew Roa), John Ridge (Kalani Queypo), John Ross (Jake Waid) and Elias Boudinot (Jake Hart) and their struggles for tribal sovereignty with the Supreme Court and the Jackson White House — struggles that would lead to the murders of three of them. The other, more fictional, concerns a modern-day lawyer descended from the Ridges named Sarah Polson (Kyla García), whose own fight for self-dominion becomes deeply personal with a shocking act two twist. Too shocking to be believable for some, though actor Joseph Carlson does a great white devil in both the past and present.
Names, dates, legal precedents and stentorian monologues of Native American pride come flying at you pretty fast. The history, to be fair, is compelling stuff. And Queypo in particular does a fine job of humanizing it. It’s not really a problem that the 19th century politics are more interesting than the 21st century domestic drama, but it is a problem that both feel really, really lecture-y. No Supreme Court justice has ever chosen a Native clerk. Native American women suffer greater rates of assault and rape than any other ethnic group. Andrew Jackson was a racist dick. Chief John Ross was a self-made dictator, canceling tribal elections and seeking backdoor fortunes. Will there be a quiz later?
I actually heard an older couple discuss the adjective “didactic” as they gathered their coats after curtain call.
Oh and while we’re on curtain calls, something I’ve been meaning to say: D.C. theatre audiences give up the standing ovation waaaay too easily. Granted, I’m stingy about them. I’ve stayed in my seat when there were friends up there bowing, but y’all stand up so quickly it’s like you’re trying to catch a balloon before it gets away. Chill.
But clearly the applause at Wednesday’s opening night meant Sovereignty hit home with a lot of theatre-goers. It has a good heart, and an even better brain, but I still feel like the play was its own assigned reading.
It’s admirable. And illuminating, too. But far less than enthralling.