Theater houses and performance spaces throughout North America have in recent years gotten serious (some of them extravagantly serious) about land acknowledgements, taking care to publicly recognize the Indigenous peoples whose nations preceded the U.S. and Canada in these territories by thousands of years.
Still, relatively few companies build on their pre-show announcements to actually present new, dramatically rich work by or about the Native Americans whose land, and lives, are being acknowledged. So kudos to Round House for championing On the Far End (★★★☆☆), a solo stage bio of Muscogee (Creek) Nation activist and organizer Ella Jean Hill, written and performed by Mary Kathryn Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
A world premiere production, running in repertory with Morgan Gould’s Jennifer Who Is Leaving as part of Round House’s second annual National Capital New Play Festival, On the Far End has been staged by Margot Bordelon as an intimate chat with strangers allowing Hill to narrate her own story. Nagle starts by noting that she never met her mother-in-law, which, one assumes, freed her up somewhat in conceiving the characterization, while also keeping her loyal to the facts.
Adopting various characters in Hill’s life as the matriarch recounts her tale, Nagle ranges around scenic designer Paige Hathaway’s woodsy, collegiate forum ringed with patches of grass and encircling a sapling, bare of leaves.
There’s a bit of a rough start, until the pace is up and running, and much of the expansive cast of characters has been established, distinguishing who’s supposed to be talking in a narrative that covers several decades in about 90 minutes. We meet several generations of Hill’s family sometimes in just a few seconds.
Seated behind her spartan desk, or acting out scenes in far-flung locations — from an oppressive government boarding school in Oklahoma, to Senator John McCain’s office in Arizona, to the floor of the Supreme Court — Nagle’s careful storytelling draws a detailed portrait, that’s probably more informative than involving, but still produces moments of intensity.
Merely spoken, the depiction of Hill’s sojourn as a girl, separated from her family, at the boarding school where she was physically and verbally abused while being “civilized” to be a servant for white families sounds harrowing.
An episode, later in life, when Hill’s family and her husband, Joyotpaul Chaudhuri, have her committed to a mental hospital registers as equally shocking. The play thoughtfully balances episodes delving into Hill’s personal trials, with the generational trials of her people and nation, who were marched off their ancestral lands down the deadly Trail of Tears.
Similarly, it balances her defeats and losses, with triumphs like becoming the first Native American awarded the prestigious Jefferson Award for public service — prestigious partly because it’s named after third president and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, an irony that does not escape Jean Hill.
While Hill campaigned her entire life for the rights and sovereignty of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the show illustrates that, sadly, she did not live to see the ultimate success of the 2020 Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which preserved the existence of the Muscogee Reservation, “and Muscogee Nation’s jurisdiction thereon.”
But the play also goes out of its way to acknowledge the man credited with leading the Court’s majority McGirt decision — Justice Neil Gorsuch. The jurist was in the house for opening night, present to accept scripted and unscripted messages of gratitude and congratulations for the fair, humane decision that brought Jean Hill’s life’s work to fruition, and finally fulfilled one nation’s promise to another.
On the Far End runs through May 7 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md. Tickets are $46 to $81, with several discount options available, including 2-For-1 Tuesday. Call 240-644-1100, or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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