How did a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, who writes mostly comedies, come to write a drama about the most significant event in Cherokee Indian history?
I’m referring to the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, when the US government forcibly moved tribes from ancestral land in the South to territories in what is now Oklahoma. During the cross-country passage, thousands died in inhospitable weather.
One day, out of the blue, I received a telephone call from a descendant of the principal Cherokee chief during that period. The caller was looking for someone to help write a book about his relatives who survived the long trek.Â As I began researching the events, I quickly learned of the incredible story of a man called Major Ridge, who became the most controversial Cherokee who ever lived.
A highly respected member of the Cherokee community, Major Ridge was a warrior who fought many battles against the whites, burning their homes and killing those who fought against him in order to protect Cherokee land. Later he drew criticism from some of his fellow Cherokees. ToÂ find out what happened to him ““ well, you’ll have to see the play.
But then the descendant who originally contacted me disappeared. At least I could not reach him by phone or email for several years, and so the project became dormant until I received a notice from a playwrights group, saying that a composer named Robert Alder was looking for a writer to collaborate on a musical about Indians.
We talked, and I began writing the book. But we each soon realized that the project wouldn’t work. The story Bob wanted to tell was about Indians in various tribes, and I wanted to concentrate on the Major Ridge story.Â Also, the complex story I was writing had no room, without being overly lengthy, for the musical numbers he’d create.Â So, Bob and I agreed that I’d continue with the play without such music.Â (The resulting production of Not One More Foot of Land! does have live background music, much as a score enhances a movie, but the music is created using drums, rattles and a flute).
I continued writing, and over the past few years I developed the script with the help of several readings, both sit-down and staged. Finally, when I thought it was ready, I decided to produce it. Of course, it wasn’t quite ready, and it needed the contributions of several people to prepare it for performance.
An important contributor was Kristina Lloyd, my extremely talented director. Another was Hanay Geiogamah, of the UCLA Department of Theater, and formerly head of the school’s Indian Studies Department, who has been an invaluable resource, both technically and culturally. He doesn’t like me to say this, but I suspect he is the world’s foremost expert in Indian performance art. He not only helped fashion the script, but he brought in Cherokee customs and other elements that a Jewish boy from Brooklyn had no knowledge of.
Not One More Foot of Land! is by far the most ambitious stage project I’ve ever been involved with. There are 18 actors, with most playing multiple roles, and about 50 short scenes for this epic drama that spans a 50-year period. It has been more than a little nerve-wracking, with all the elements inserted into the play ““ light and sound cues, costume changes, and so on.Â Most of these, as in most productions, were inserted at the end. While it is nervous-making, at the same time it’s fun.
More than half the actors are Native Americans, and about half of those are Cherokee. We found actors from several sources. Almost half came from prior productions either I or the director was involved with, and most of the remainder came from referrals, either from the existing cast at the time, or from others we respected. We have a terrific group.
I am technically an outsider to Native American culture, without much prior exposure to Native Americans. But I’ve learned a lot from those associated with the production, as well as from my research. The Native American actors don’t treat me as an outsider. They are appreciative that a play has been written about how Native Americans were treated back then, not just the Cherokee, but many other tribes as well. They have truly bought into the value of the play. And they are also very appreciative when I buy them pizza, as tech rehearsals go way into the night.
I hope many people, both Native and non-Native, will come see the results.
Not One More Foot Of Land!, presented by the Secret Rose Theatre. Opens Feb. 10. Plays Fri.- Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Â Through April 1. Tickets: $22; Seniors: $17; Students: $10. Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Boulevard, NoHo. www.secretrose.com. 818-782-4254.
***All Not One More Foot Of Land! production photos by Kristina Lloyd
Art Shulman’s previously produced full-length plays include Bagels; Sex Is Good For You!; Old Broads Can’t Dunk; The Rabbi & The Shiksa; The $4 Million Giveaway; Misconceptions; September 10; God, Bring Me A Miracle!; The Rabbi & The Gravedigger;Â Joe Carbone’s Job, and Boxcar And Eugenia. He has also written the Christmas plays The Trolls Who Stole The North Pole, and The Spacenapped Santa, and many one-act plays, including At Half Time, Waitress, Graveside, Beggars, Discussion After The Play Reading, Measuring, and Pigeons.