reviewed by Daniel Shock

The event that most of us think of as “The Trail of Tears” began in 1838 as the U.S. Army, under orders from President Andrew Jackson, began enforcement of the Indian Removal Act. They rounded up about 17,000 members of the Cherokee Nation and forced them on a deadly journey from their homes and ancestral lands in North Carolina and other Southeastern States to Oklahoma, where they were to be resettled. 4000 people are estimated to have died from hunger, exposure and disease while making this journey.

IRT’s current UpperStage production of And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey on the Trail of Tears is a play created by actor and Cherokee, DeLanna Studi. It is a play that…well, it occurs to me as I type that it is the story of how she went about creating the play. In the program, Director Corey Madden tells how she asked Ms. Studi what her dream project was. Madden says that “without hesitation, she declared ‘I want to walk the Trail of Tears with my father and make a play about it.’” That is precisely what this is. But it doesn’t capture the depth of the experience.

Cherokee actress and playwright, DeLanna Studi

And So We Walked, is at once DeLanna’s story, her family’s story, and her people’s story – plus how she sought to connect and communicate with all of those stories. What surprised me most about the play was how much humor there is. There is a lot of laughter to be found as she honestly reveals the details of her life. Her mistakes, her struggles, the ups and downs of her love life, and her father of few words. There is also pain as she talks about her personal pain, her family’s pain and the pain of her people. There is a lot in this that I am still pondering from the show. It will stay with me for a long time. If that’s not the mark of great theatre, I don’t know what is.

I haven’t seen a lot of one performer plays. I am always amazed at the actor who can stand on stage for 2 hours and be interesting and engaging. The director and actor have worked together to create a performance that has many levels and is never boring. Ms. Studi keeps us feeling – as things are constantly moving as she moves around the luggage, backpacks, tables and benches on the stage. Pulling out a few costume pieces (costumes by Andja Budincich) as she changes between characters. She portrays conversations with her father with great skill moving between her exasperation and his stoic arm crossed obstinance.

DeLanna Studi in “And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey on the Trail of Tears”

The set by John Coyne is beautiful and is meant to evoke Cherokee sacred spaces. In the center is a multi-level seven-sided heptagon that she moves around and up and down on. Behind that along the back of the set are screen like elements where images are projected to give a sense of place. Lighting and projection by Norman Coates and music/sound by Bruno Louchouarn combine to transport us to the world she is taking us through.

As I consider Ms. Studi’s story, now two days after seeing her performance, I think about the Who’s in Horton Hears a Who. They shout “We are here! We are here!”. In many ways the Cherokee and other native nations have been rendered invisible. We forget that we live in a state named Indiana…land of the Indians. My father has a collection of arrowheads and tools that he has found over the 5 decades or so that he has been walking the fields farmed by my uncle and my grandfather before him. There wasn’t just one trail of tears. There have been many. Native people were driven from here just like North Carolina. They were here. Their children have a story to tell. We should listen.

Tickets for And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey on the Trail of Tears can be purchased through the IRT Box office by calling 317-635-5252 or online at: www.irtlive.com. Performances run through November 10th.

  • banner artwork by Kyle Ragsdale
  • photos provided by Indiana Repertory Theatre