Little known history comes to light in ‘Sovereignty’ at Marin

A young attorney’s efforts to restore rights to her Cherokee Nation become personal in “Sovereignty.”

Presented by Marin Theatre Company, this play by Mary Kathryn Nagle is both a powerful drama and a look at American history usually ignored in schools and history books.

Although not autobiographical per se, it’s based on Nagle’s family history from the 1820s and ’30s to the present. Her principal character, Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances), is descended from Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) and his son, John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa).

The playbill, a treasure trove of historical information, helps to clarify their roles and the events that followed.

Major and John Ridge were the 19th century leaders of efforts to enforce the Cherokee Nation’s rights of sovereignty in Georgia. Those rights included a law that made the rape of a woman on Cherokee lands a crime that the Cherokee Nation could prosecute no matter what the assailant’s citizenship or race was.

That right was upheld in an 1832 Supreme Court decision that President Andrew Jackson (Craig Marker) and the Georgia governor refused to enforce. The upshot was that John Ridge and others, over the objections of John Ross (Jake Waid), signed a treaty agreeing to allow Cherokees to move to Oklahoma, where they would have their own land.

Those who refused to leave were forced to do so, resulting in the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

In the play’s present scenes, Sarah is hired by the Cherokee Nation Attorney General’s Office, headed by Jim Ross (Waid). She doesn’t reveal her middle name, Ridge, because there’s still bad blood between the Ridges and the Rosses.

She has recently become engaged to a federal police officer, Ben O’Connor (Marker). While Ben was drinking with a buddy at an Indian casino in Oklahoma, a Cherokee Nation cop, Watie Polson (Kholan Studi), Sarah’s brother, was assaulted by a drunk (Scott Coopwood).

However, because of a Supreme Court decision in 1978, neither Ben nor Watie had authority to arrest the man because he was a non-Cherokee on Cherokee land.

Sarah and Jim, her boss, work on an appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to give Indian nations the right to prosecute anyone who assaults women, children or law enforcement officers or who commits other sexual crimes on Indian land.

Ben, jealous of the time Sarah is spending with Jim, beats her up in a drunken rage.

Under the outstanding direction of MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis, the action seamlessly shifts between past and present. Moreover, he has chosen an outstanding cast that includes several Native Americans. Except for Frances as Sarah, most of the actors play several roles.

Facilitating smooth transitions is the design team of Annie Smart, set; E.B. Brooks, costumes; Danny Osburn, lighting; and sound, Sara Huddleston. Brenda Toineeta Pipestem served as cultural consultant.

Running just over two hours with one intermission, “Sovereignty” will continue through Oct. 20 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

About the Author

Judy RichterJudy reviews San Francisco Bay Area theater and writes feature articles about activities of the Stanford women's basketball team and Fast Break Club. A longtime Bay Area journalist, she is retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was a writer and copy editor.View all posts by Judy Richter →