Native Voices at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, CA is giving a loud voice to the stories of Native American people in Fairly Traceable a romantic dramedy, currently being presented as a world premiere, written by Mary Kathryn Nagle, Cherokee citizen, playwright and partner at Pipestem Law, a firm specializing in the sovereignty of Native tribes and peoples. The story follows two law students who juggle career and personal ambitions as they fight for communities besieged by man-made climate change.
Nagle sat down with FootLights to talk about politics and theater and just how personal the Native American voice really is for her.
Fairly Traceable covers very prescient, hot-button issues. Interesting because there is often a lot of dialog about how politics doesn’t have any place in theater.
Theater has always been political. It is political by nature. So it’s funny when you hear people say otherwise. I think that comes from a place of privilege. For those people, theater is not political because they’ve always been privileged to tell their stories. No one has ever silenced them.
How did you segue from law into playwrighting?
I went to law school at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. A week after I got there Hurricane Katrina hit. The whole city was under water and Tulane shut down. When we finally came back in January, I had to do my first year of law school from January to June, two semesters in one, six classes a week.
People were really depressed. It was hard. Some had lost everything they owned. Many had lost loved ones. I remember driving home at night from the campus, for a mile and a half – no one else was back yet – and all the lights were out. There wasn’t any electricity. You could still see the marks on all the houses where the water had been, where people had spray-painted how many had been dead inside. And it was just eerie. You were circled by death. It was a very strange way to start law school.
So I told the administration at Tulane, “You know we need to do a play about this. Because people need to come together and laugh and cry and heal. Theater is therapeutic.” And they were like – What? A play? But they said, “Fine. Go ahead and do a play if you want to. We’re not going to stop you.”
So I interviewed students and professors, alumni and staff and got them to act out their own stories. We produced Katrina Stories. Everyone came and cried and laughed and was really moved. Because it was their own stories. Because they got to see themselves reflected on stage, played by people in their own community. It was powerful.
Afterward, folks said, “So what are you writing next year?” So I ended up doing a play every year I was in law school.
What’s it like getting produced now in the theater world?
When you go out into the real theater world, there is so much rejection. Most theaters where you send your script are like – Nope. Nope. Nope! I’m very privileged and honored that now my stories are getting produced at major non-native, national and regional American theaters. That’s a very new thing.
I started with storytelling in my community. My first plays were done in law schools, on reservations at Pow wows and in churches. They weren’t in theaters. And really, there’s something magical about not having to worry about that and saying, “I don’t care if a prestigious institution thinks my story has any legs. My community wants to hear my story. My community is going to create my story.” That’s where I come from in terms of creating theater.
I’m used to getting my plays produced by native American theater companies which is phenomenal because now more Native American playwrights have a chance to get their stories out there. But they have almost no resources. Native Voices at the Autry has a sliver of the budget that major institutions in Los Angeles and in other cities have.
What was your biggest influence for choosing to go to law school?
I always knew I wanted to go to law school. My great-great-great-great grandfather was Major Ridge. He wrote, drafted and signed as president and speaker of the tribal council in 1825 the legislation when Cherokee Nation created its Supreme Court. He was very instrumental in the ratification of the Cherokee Nation Constitution in 1827. I actually wrote a play about that, about my grandfather. It’s called, Sovereignty and Arena Stage in D.C. is going to produce it in 2018. And that’s very exciting to me because that’s the story of my grandfather. The Cherokee Supreme Court won a case in 1832 in which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized Cherokee Nation’s right to exist and right to exercise exclusive jurisdiction on Cherokee lands.
But according to your statements in the post-show talkback, the U.S. Supreme court still classifies Native American people as inferior because A. you don’t farm and B. you’re not Christian.
And that’s good law. It’s never been overturned.
Why isn’t it?
Exactly. So my goal in life is to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and overturn that precedent.
Are you at that point yet? You mentioned in the talkback that you were clerking.
I have clerked for the Federal District Court of Nebraska and I have clerked on the Fifth Circuit of Appeals for Judge (Honorable Fortunato) Benavides in Austin Tx. I’ve been in private practice since 2010.
The title of your production Fairly Traceable refers to Justice Antonin Scalia’s “fairly traceable” written opinion for the majority in the Supreme Court case Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992), a doctrine which has been used repeatedly by federal courts to prevent climate change victims from holding those who profit from environmental destruction accountable. So this isn’t merely a romantic fiction. Your law work is playing directly into this. What else are you doing on the law side for instance with the Dakota Access Pipeline?
My client is the National Women’s Indigenous Resource Center. I filed an Amicus brief on their behalf in the U.S. District Court, District of Columbia which is the federal district court in Washington, D.C. That’s where Standing Rock filed their whole litigation. Which is why it’s being litigated there.
Our brief advocates for safety and sovereignty to protect native women. It specifically talks about the permitting process the Army Corps of Engineers underwent. The Army Corps of Engineers neglected to fully comply with federal law and regulations that require the Corps to consider the public interest in locations, on a pipeline, of the safety and health and welfare of native American women and children, in the North Dakota Balkan Region and specifically on tribal lands.
(According to Nagle since the Dakota Access Pipeline has been snaking South East, crime rates and crimes against Native American women in every area/region where work camps are set up, have exponentially increased.)
What’s the most personal part of Fairly Traceable for you?
Well, a lot of it is personal. In Fairly Traceable, Mark’s character gives Randy a box. Mark is a lot like my dad in some ways. And the moment references a real life memory for me.
In 2011, when the Joplin, Missouri tornado struck, my father was actually working at St. John’s Hospital, which was destroyed. In fact, I thought he was at the hospital at that time when I was looking at the footage. For a while, I didn’t know if my parents were dead or alive.
My dad saved a copy of the front page of the Joplin Globe for 164 days because every day featured a life lost in the tornado. He put all those papers in a box. I came back home many times that Summer to help the community clean up. And the last time I was home he handed me that box. “I saved all the stories for you and thought someday you might write a play about this.”
And you did.
And I did.