Mary Kathryn Nagle is ready to litigate her case onstage.
Nagle, a practicing lawyer and a member of the Cherokee Nation, is up in arms about the 1978 Supreme Court ruling that Native American courts have no jurisdiction over non-Indians. That Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe decision — pivotal to Nagle’s new play “Sovereignty” at Arena Stage — has left women particularly vulnerable to violence from non-native husbands and dating partners who aren’t subject to Native American courts.
“I can explain why the jurisprudence is wrong,” says Nagle, who argues with the prepared, animated force of a heroic TV lawyer. “But I also know that Brown v. the Board of Education didn’t happen in a vacuum. There was a whole movement going on across the country to change the narrative around racism. So, same thing: We have to change the racist narrative that supports Oliphant.”
Speaking in a small room downstairs at Arena, she shifts gears. “This is where I put on my playwright hat and say there is a lot we can do as playwrights that you can’t do as lawyers.”
“Yes,” affirms friend and fellow playwright Annalisa Dias, whose new “4,380 Nights” at Signature Theatre examines the overlap between 19th-century European colonialism and detainees at Guantanamo Bay. “I think the justices should come see our plays.”
Nagle, 34, and Dias, 30, have only recently met, but they already seem like enthusiastic friends charged up by overlapping interests and new dramas now in previews and opening a day apart. The works have striking elements in common. “Sovereignty” and “4,380 Nights” have prime spots in Washington’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, the second time in three years the city has flexed its collective muscle to showcase new works by women (who still get produced fractionally as often as men). Both plays spring from current dilemmas and examine bedrock causes as far back as the 1830s.
Both writers also have family histories with colonialism that are “complicated,” as Dias puts it.
Dias’s father comes from Goa, India, which Portugal finally lost by force in 1961. He is now a U.S. citizen, said Dias, who grew up in Pittsburgh and has been D.C.-based for several years. “He’s got this strange relationship with the Portuguese government, the British government and the Indian government.”
Nagle’s family tree is directly rooted in the Trail of Tears. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled that Cherokee land was sovereign, but Andrew Jackson didn’t care. Faced with slaughter, Major Ridge and his son, John Ridge — Nagle’s ancestors — agreed to the Treaty of New Echota, which relocated the Cherokee people from the Southeast to land in Oklahoma. The Ridges were assassinated by Cherokees who felt betrayed by the deal.
“Read Wilma Mankiller’s autobiography, the first female chief of our nation,” says Nagle, whose law office is in Tulsa. “There are pages about how the Ridges are traitors — horrible people who deserve to die, because they signed the removal treaty. People say, ‘Thank God we survived what the Ridges did to us.’ That’s the narrative. I’m not going to go, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ I hid that for a very long time.”
Nagle also had to resist her legal impulses to exactingly footnote and cite the action in “Sovereignty.” “Molly Smith would say, ‘Okay, but this is theater,” Nagle says of Arena’s artistic director, who is directing the play. Smith’s connection to Native American issues runs deep, too: For years, she created community-based works at her Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, and she is married to Suzanne Blue Star Boy of the Ihanktonwan Dakota, part of the original Great Sioux Nation.
Dias and Nagle both aim to spin engrossing stories. But they’re also believers in theater as an effective platform for action. Dias co-founded the DC Coalition for Theatre and Social Justice to bring together artists and activists who were flying in separate orbits. Nagle leans in as Dias talks about Augusto Boal’s “theater of the oppressed” techniques and about something called “legislative theater.”
“That sounds like something I may have already done,” Nagle jokes.
Even theater, though, is slow to change. “Sovereignty” came about in part because Nagle wrote an essay fuming about redface depictions of Native Americans on stage, whether it’s the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” or the drama “An Octoroon,” with practically no plays by Native American writers to be found. Gatekeepers in administrative offices would tell Nagle that her scripts were good but that audiences are hungry for contemporary stories, not history.
“I’m like, ‘OHHH!’ ” Nagle says with extravagant sarcasm. “I didn’t realize that Andrew Jackson wasn’t relevant today. Is that why someone else is doing a musical about him? And why President Trump is in front of his photo on the wall?”
“I think people talk a bigger game than they’re willing to put their money behind,” Dias agrees.
Three Native American playwrights (including Nagle) are about to be produced in three Oregon theaters, a mini-surge that Nagle finds exciting but short of game-changing.
“You don’t get a massive cultural shift without a backlash,” Nagle says, her sarcasm flaring again. “People don’t change that easily, especially when it’s things that have been going on for hundreds of years from our irrelevant past! I think we’re starting to wake up that we are who we come from, and that we need to understand that this disconnect from our past is actually harming us today.”
Which brings things around to the second Women’s Voices festival, which has focused attention to the deficit against female writers without yet making the glaring deficit go away. Even the approach to the correction wears Dias out as producers tell her, “We’re interested in your play: You’re a woman, and you’re a person of color, so that checks boxes for us.”
“Really?” Dias says. “It’s just so frustrating.”
Sovereignty, by Mary Kathryn Nagle. Through Feb. 18 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $40-$111, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.
4,380 Nights , by Annalisa Dias. Through Feb. 18 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Shirlington. Tickets $40-$89. Call 703-820-9771 or visit. sigtheatre.org.