Friday, November 1, 2019

Trail mix: DeLanna Studi's "And So We Walked" at IRT outlines pain and pleasures of 'remembering removal'

The job of the memoirist has been fraught in the recent past with evidence that some examples of the genre have treated the truth a little loosely. In the prose memoir, the reader particularly expects veracity, however much a personal point of view may thread its way through the narrative. Memoirs take their stand on nonfiction terrain.

The memoir approached as a stage show is trickier, because a dramatic shape has to be given to the truth of what's recounted. So I would be willing to accept such a show as "And So We Walked: An Artist's Journey Along the Trail of Tears," written and performed currently by DeLanna Studi on the Upperstage at Indiana Repertory Theatre, as primarily loyal to making a cohesive entertainment, around which the truth forms a pattern, like iron filings around a magnet placed underneath a piece of paper. (The production, which I saw Thursday, marks the launch of IRT's INclusion Series of shows emphasizing diverse storytelling.)

I'm not questioning Studi's adherence to a truthful account of her walking tour with her father along the Trail of Tears, the historic path of exile that Cherokees were forced to take as a result of white greed and racism in the 1830s.  But I'm saying that the really important matter is how compelling a stage entertainment "And So We Walked" is. And on those grounds, it succeeds immensely. If she enhanced what happened, particularly in applying personal applications of the "dream play" niche pioneered around 1900 by August Strindberg, I'm comfortable with that. I am not going to overliteralize somebody's dreams, especially when they are projected outward as hers are so vividly in this production, directed by Corey Madden.

In two generously proportioned acts, Studi not only informs us of the reality of President Andrew Jackson's authoritarian support of white settlers and mining interests in the American Southeast, she also connects the process and its aftermath to Cherokee Nation politics and her relationship to her parents. They are Oklahomans of contrasting temperaments rooted partly in her mother's whiteness and her father's full-blooded Cherokee heritage.

Tension surrounds her acting ambitions and how they carry her away from home (she is familiar to IRT audiences most recently through her participation in IRT's "Finding Home," a Hoosier bicentennial production of
DeLanna Studi is creator and sole performer in "And So We Walked."
three years ago). She has a complicated relationship with a lover who seems to disappear unexpectedly, yet lends crucial help to both her internal and external journeys. She gets caught up in her nation's political turmoil, which echoes her people's long-ago betrayal by some who smoothed the way for the removal.

In a riveting series of linked monologues, marked by well-projected mimicry of other people, Studi displays the mixed messages that all attempts to recover a damaged historical identity face today. The persistence of Cherokee culture in the original homeland is celebrated and the spiritual threads to its heyday are illuminated — to a large degree with literal radiance by John Coyne's scenic design and Norman Coates' lighting and projections designs. Sounds associated with her travels are rendered as if through the gauze of memory in the sound design by a team of four.

The show draws back from pointing fingers at white guilt in the sense that the atrocity is a given that must be dealt with in the present and treated as a challenge to anyone who would investigate it as closely and personally as Studi did. The finger that does point is an embedded spiritual challenger, the legendary demon Spearfinger, a figure believed to target children to deadly effect. Metaphorically, Spearfinger aims at the survival of Cherokee culture from generation to generation. Along the way, as if from a pair of good cop/bad cop advisers, Studi learns from the ghostly figures of her grandmothers.

The spiritual elements are effectively woven into the real-world trials Studi faces. The first act climaxes in her participation in a Stomp Dance traditional to the Eastern Band of Cherokee. There her links  to her heritage seem secure, but her assumption of Warrior Woman status is a matter as mixed as her "half-breed" racial makeup and her untraditional professional goals. At length, who she is takes on unshakable authenticity. Hard-won insights and resisted bitterness generate the person that we see before us. The positive feeling is never sentimentalized, just as the remembrance of removal is not allowed to become the whole picture of what happened to one of the most advanced Native American societies as the result of a hostile alien takeover.

I was reminded of the tone and message I received as a naive 11-year-old visiting the remnants of Cherokee culture while on a family camping trip to the Great Smoky Mountains more than six decades ago. In a gift shop loaded with "Indian" items, I picked up a small knife in a nicely beaded leather sheath. It was dumb-question time. I took it to the counter and asked the clerk, "Is this made by Indians?"

A middle-aged woman I remember as an earth-mother type who was surely of Eastern Band descent answered — firmly, decisively, not unkindly but with a note of pride that still rings in my inner ear — "No, it is not." I later noticed in my browsing that everything I picked up and examined closely there was stamped "made in Japan" (the source of many cheap items marketed in 1950s America).

I can't account for how the way that clerk said "No, it is not" stays with me so clearly to this day, but I understand it a little better after seeing "And So We Walked."

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