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November 04, 2010

Q&A: Native American Theater and Lynn Riggs

Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs


The Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs (1899–1954) was the only Native American dramatist writing for the Broadway stage during the beginning of the 20th century. As a child of the Cherokee Nation, Riggs (above) witnessed the social, legal and cultural changes of his community when, in 1907, Indian Territory became Oklahoma. This childhood experience inspired Green Grow the Lilacs, a Pulitzer-Prize nominated drama that was later adapted into the hit musical Oklahoma!

On Wednesday, Nov. 17 and Thursday, Nov. 18, the National Museum of the American Indian will host a production of Green Grow the Lilacs by the U.S. Naval Academy’s theater troupe, the Masqueraders. Dr. Christy Stanlake, a scholar in Native American theater and director of the Masqueraders, recently spoke with NMAI about how she first learned of Riggs’ work, her students’ reactions to the play and what she hopes her audience will take away from the performances.

Why did you choose to stage this particular play?

I’ve been interested in Riggs for a long time, and the play of his that I really want to direct one day is  The Cherokee Night, an amazing, powerful play.  Of course, because I direct the USNA theatre program, my play selection is also shaped by our particular audience, an audience that is too young to really understand the more controversial scenes in The Cherokee Night.  I chose Green Grow the Lilacs because it appears to be such a “mainstream” play; nevertheless, it includes Native dramaturgical elements that are challenging, highly philosophical, and dramatically haunting. 

For almost eighty years, this play has been produced as if it harbors no Native presence, but if you really look at the script, you see characters asserting Native American intellectual traditions, people surviving despite overwhelming political changes, and ceremonial actions relating people to one another and the land around them.  This is the beauty of Riggs’ writing.  He introduced a Native theatrical language onto the Broadway stage when most portrayals of Native people were pure stereotype.  He gave the American Theatre an element of Native dramaturgy, which we are just now beginning to see and celebrate.  As far as I know, this is one of if not the only, staging of Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs to use Native American theatrical staging practices, but I am certain that this sort of interpretation of his plays is going to grow to be the norm.  

How did you first learn about Lynn Riggs?

I’ve been studying Native American theatre since I met JudyLee Oliva, a Chickasaw playwright, at the University of Oklahoma in 1996.  She had come to OU to do a workshop production of Te Ata, a play about a classically trained Chickasaw actress who had performed a one-woman show from the 1920s through the 1980s. The more I learned about Native American theatre and Native American philosophies, the more I loved them. 

I had known about Riggs, who like Oliva and I, had also been a student at OU in his youth; however, I didn’t do much writing about him until I was writing my book, Native American Drama:  A Critical Perspective. In one of the chapters, I wrote about Riggs’s use of place/landscape in The Cherokee Night, and what his play taught me about the way Native dramatists can use place (setting in theatre) blew my mind.  Riggs was a genius; he was so far ahead of his time. Since writing about The Cherokee Night, I have not tired of Riggs.  His plays and his own personal writings about the theatre, and his hopes for a new type of American theatrical language, have so much to teach us.  I feel I learn from his works every day. 

How have your students reacted to learning about Riggs and rehearsing this play?

I think they’ve really enjoyed learning about Native American intellectual traditions and the way in which those perspectives shape character choices.  Some of our actors have Native lineage, such as Kiley Provenzano, who plays Laurey and is also part Chickasaw. While others do not; nevertheless, they often surprise me when I hear them speak about what they’ve learned. 

Recently, Sylvia Kilburn, our Aunt Eller, was talking about what she had learned from Eller about her persistence against all odds, about loss, and survival.  Sylvia said that she chose to sing Eller’s songs with power and a twang because, to Sylvia, Eller represented someone who had been through so much but grew strength from her relationship to the landscape around her, qualities that are earthy and powerful.  John Tanalega, our Curley, has really connected with the lyrical, ceremonial, visionary ways that Curley uses language to shape others and the world around him. 

All of the Midshipmen have commented upon how the play makes them consider the perspectives of Iraqis and people from Afghanistan who have been living through the political and cultural changes occurring in their homeland warzones. 

How do you hope this particular production will showcase the Native American roots and themes of Lynn Riggs’ original text?

I hope that people will see a play that is both familiar, in terms of story, but also enlightening, in the way that the production reveals the Native presence that Riggs created through his setting and characters. I think some of our production choices will be more obvious than others to audience members. For example, many of the characters wear clothing that is a mix of western, early 20th century dress and Native American dress: some of the men wear ribbon shirts to the dance; some of the women wear tear dresses. 

While clothing may be obvious, ceremony will be less obvious to some people but even more important to the production.  For example, Scene 5 will showcase the communal values of this Cherokee community.  Those will be emphasized even more by Curley, when he honors the four directions with Laurey after their marriage.  The shivoree in Scene 6, then, works as an opposite type of ceremony.  Rather than the clockwise circles we see characters dance to in the party scene at Old Man Peck’s, the shivoree dance undoes the community:  the men dance counter clockwise and engage in profane gestures that damage the community. I hope the juxtaposition of these two scenes will show the extreme cultural perspectives the characters face as Indian Territory and its communal ways of life pull against the individualistic, material desires, influenced by Manifest Destiny. 

For more information, visit the Museum of the American Indian's calendar.

Check out the Masquerader's website for a behind-the-scenes look at their work on "Green Grow the Lilacs."

Posted by Molly Stephey


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I have read once about Riggs before and I must say that he is one guy that does know what he is up to. He is good sample for young people to follow. Nice post!

great article I really enjoyed reading it thank you.

Wow luminous readings!! I read it completely get catch the top points. Hopefully reading more special consequence. :)

Lynn Riggs was the real hero in begging of 20th century. Her contribution in American Theater is remarkable. Superb sharing.

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