Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The present day story focuses on Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances), a crusading young Cherokee attorney who has returned to tribal lands in Oklahoma to join the fight in restoring full sovereignty for her people, working with tribal District Attorney Jim Ross (Jake Waid). For, despite the nation status granted to certain tribes, loopholes in the law prevent native law enforcement from punishing non-Indian people who commit crimes on tribal landsa fact made apparent when Sarah's brother Watie (Kholan Studi), a tribal police officer working security at an Indian casino, is assaulted by a drunk white patron. His friend Ben (Craig Marker), a cop himself, subdues the offender, but is told nothing can be done and the drunk is sent on his way. Perhaps because of the way Ben steps up to help her brother, he catches the eye of Sarah, and they begin a relationship.
To illustrate the genesis of this strange situation, Nagle takes us back in time to the early 1800s, when the Cherokee still lived in parts of what is now Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. We see the ancestors of Sarahfourth great-grandfather Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) and his son John (Robert I. Mesa)and Jim Ross's fourth great-grandfather, John Ross (Jake Waid). These two Cherokee leaders are fighting tremendous oddsa young country expanding outward, into their territory, and division in their own ranks. Ross vows to stay on Cherokee land until the last man, while Ridge thinks the tribe should accept the inevitable and move west before they are slaughtered entirely. As we know from history, neither option is a good one, as the United States government, led by the racist and self-serving Andrew Jackson (Craig Marker), will renege on its promises, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Cherokee, and the forced resettlement of thousands more. This rift will echo through the years, becoming almost a Hatfields vs. McCoys rivalry between the two clans such that Sarah Ridge Polson won't reveal her middle name to her boss Jim Ross out of fear of possible reprisals.
Sovereignty is solidly constructed, if a bit didactic at times. Playwright Nagle is an attorney herself, and the play occasionally dives a bit too deeply into legal arguments, telling us things it ought to be showing us. But given the complex history being presented here, it's hard to fault her for wanting to make sure we in the audience understand the forces at play as completely as possible. Fortunately, director Jasson Minadakis is a more than able helmsman, guiding us smoothly between the two time periods, and keeping the pace sprightly. He sometimes keeps characters from both eras on stage at the same time, but we are never confused about who's who or when's when.
Elizabeth Frances plays Sarah Ridge Polson with tremendous focus and elegant grace. Both she and her character seem to be on a mission of bringing greater understanding of the threats faced by native communities, especially native women. As her father and her fourth great-grandfather, Andrew Roa exhibits a gravitas perfectly in keeping with a patriarch and tribal chief. Although there may be anger and resentment and suspicion all around him, he serves as a calming influence and solid source of wisdom. Craig Marker gets to be villainous in both his roles, but never overplays either. He knows from whence comes the power (and weakness) of his characters, and shows it to us without ever having to baldly point it out.
This is a fascinating and too often ignored aspect of American history, and Marin Theatre Company is to be congratulated for taking the risk of bringing diverse voices to a community (Marin County) which is remarkably un-diverse. And while Nagle's play resolves in a lovely moment that harkens back to the very first scene in a family graveyard, Sovereignty could benefit from a somewhat more restrained approach to its storytelling.
Sovereignty runs through October 20, 2019, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There is an additional "Perspectives" matinee on October 17 at 1:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$70. Tickets and information are available at marintheatre.org, or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208.