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‘All about the echoes’

Mary Kathryn Nagle’s revolutionary Native storytelling

Mary Kathryn Nagle

Justin Gellerson

Sitting across a table from Mary Kathryn Nagle is like watching a strong wind rush straight towards you from a long way away. It’s a force made of stories, gathered over centuries, and it’s not waiting one more day to move on through.

Originally from Oklahoma City, Nagle is a descendant of some of the Cherokee Nation’s most prominent political and cultural leaders, including John Ridge and Elias Boudinot. Like several of her ancestors, she’s both an attorney and a writer. Her blood is full of law and letters. She has argued cases in federal courts and had her plays produced on stages from New York City to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But never in Tulsa, where she lives and works as a partner at Pipestem Law on Native issues. That will change this fall, when Heller Theatre Company will present Nagle’s play “Sovereignty,” which earlier this year was the first play by a Native writer ever to be shown at the renowned Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Directed by Cherokee poet and scholar Carolyn Dunn, the two-act “Sovereignty” interweaves the story of Nagle’s own family history with a present-day tale of violations and reprisals. “I’m all about the echoes,” Nagle said. “The storytelling does the work. It’s using the same tools that have been used against us.”

For Nagle, playwriting and law aren’t just jobs—they are opportunities for Natives to be seen and heard as human beings rather than as caricatures in someone else’s story.

“I think it’s crazy that we live in a country where most theaters have never produced a single play by a Native playwright,” Nagle said. “But they have produced redface. That’s why I do the work that I do. I’m trying to change the statistics.”

Like blackface, redface is the practice of performing a dehumanized version of a Native person—dressing up as an “Indian” for Halloween, for instance.

“It’s no accident that redface was created as a performance that was perpetuated across the U.S. at the same time Andrew Jackson was running on a presidential platform of eradication of Native people,” Nagle explained. “You don’t get to a place where your law and politics support the eradication of a people if your culture isn’t also creating performances that support that.

“I think once theaters start doing plays by Native playwrights, people are going to say, ‘Wait, actually, this is better entertainment. It has more artistic value to me as a human than a fake misrepresentation.’”

And the tide is slowly turning. Oklahoma City Theatre Company has been producing its Native American New Play Festival since 2010. The Tulsa Artist Fellowship currently boasts Arigon Starr, a playwright, and Sterlin Harjo, a filmmaker, among its fellows.  

For Heller Theatre Company, with its new focus on original works of local interest, bringing in “Sovereignty” was a natural development. “There are so many incredibly talented playwrights with important, powerful stories to tell, and the wider theatre world doesn’t always allow the opportunity,” Heller vice president Nick Lutke said. “This season, we really wanted to highlight female/non-male playwrights and playwrights of color. We are thrilled to be working with Nagle and Dunn on this incredibly powerful play.”

Nagle will premiere two new plays in the coming year—“Return to Niobrara” for the Rose Theatre in Omaha and “Crossing Mnisose” for Portland Center Stage—as well as a commission for Yale Repertory Theater based on Osage author Charles Red Corn’s book “A Pipe for February,” about the Osage murders. With money she received on being granted the prestigious U.S. Artist Award this year, she’s doing everything from helping theaters hire Native language consultants to funding food and travel costs for her Native actors.

Nagle noted that theaters big and small regularly cite a dearth of Native actors when justifying the absence of Native plays in their seasons. “They say, we just don’t know any Native actors, so if we do your play, who are we going to cast? We just have to break that down. Just because you don’t know us doesn’t mean we don’t exist.”

Step by step, word by word, Nagle breaks down false stories by building up the true ones. But it’s not always so simple. For instance, how she starts a play depends on whose story she’s writing.

“It’s about relationships,” she said. “I’m not going to write about a community I have no relationship with. So if I don’t know a particular community, I introduce myself to them in a respectful manner. I also recognize that if they don’t want me to write their story, then I shouldn’t write it. We can all debate that, but I have no interest in being a writer who extracts a story from a community that’s been taken advantage of and uses it to make myself look cool.”

So she listens and learns—and then she dreams. “I daydream, I dream at night, and I let ideas come to me. They have fortunately, so far, always come, but sometimes they don’t come by the deadline that the theater has given and so then I have to turn in a really bad first draft.” Nagle said she probably does more revisions than most writers, perhaps due to her legal training, in which creating multiple drafts is an everyday practice.

There’s also the issue of being responsible about putting historical trauma onstage. “Non-Native theater companies are used to non-Native audiences, so they don’t consider how their Native audience is going to be affected. I have to keep both at the forefront of my mind. For Native actors, it can open a huge vessel of hurt and PTSD. We carry it in our blood. I very much honor my Native actors because they are exposing themselves to a lot of hurt in order to bring healing to our community.”

Nagle is deeply respected in that community, according to Harjo. “With a lot of people who are writers and creatives, there’s a lot of talk about doing things, complaining about not getting things—a lot of things other than actually working. MK (Mary Kathryn) is constantly working. She’s sort of a beacon of light to us.

“She doesn’t ask questions, she doesn’t ask for permission, she just does it,” Harjo said. “It’s going to really be inspiring to younger people who see this really powerful indigenous woman doing all these things, not holding herself back in any way but letting her voice just rain down.”

The two branches of Nagle’s work—legal and literary—reach into Native and non-Native communities alike. “It’s been incredible to see how Native folks react to seeing one of their stories onstage,” she said. “It’s so revolutionary. We’re so used to being erased or dehumanized that seeing an authentic portrayal where we’re humans is like, ‘How do I recalibrate to this?’”

As for non-Natives, she said, “I think we’ve always thought most Americans don’t want to talk about what I’m writing about. That was true 50 years ago, but today it’s that most Americans don’t even know about it. People today are like, ‘Hey, I’d actually like to know more about this.’ The people who are seeing my plays, that’s what they’re saying to me. People are craving that knowledge now.”

Oct. 26 & 27; Nov 2 & 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 28 & Nov. 4 at 2 p.m.
Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Liddy Doenges Theater

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