Unto These Hills, a historical drama that tells the story of the Cherokee people and the tragic Trail of Tears, is famously billed as the longest running outdoor drama in the state. Its well-scripted plot wraps historical accuracy in lively dialog and intriguing characters, earning Unto These Hills revered status in the theater scene.
Enter a newly penned play — Cherokee Family Reunion — that will now share the stage with the long-running signature drama every other night, and as the playwright Larissa Fasthorse neatly summed up: “It’s huge.”
Cherokee Family Reunion blends both the history of the Cherokee people with struggles that all people face today. The Cherokee Historical Association approached Fasthorse, a noted playwright and member of the Lakota tribe, to write a play specifically for the Mountainside Theater, a large bowl-shaped venue with stadium seating snugged into a hillside at the base of the towering Smoky Mountains.
Different ideas were tossed back and forth. What should the new play be? What aspects of Cherokee culture would it focus on?
Eventually, the anniversary of Henry Timberlake’s journey to Cherokee territory in Colonial times was offered up. Timberlake was a British officer in the 1700s and served as an emissary of peace to the Cherokee people. He enlisted Cherokee leaders in his efforts to restore peace between the British crown and native people, even bringing Cherokee leaders back to England to meet King George III.
The impressive Emissaries of Peace exhibit developed has been traveling the country for three years, including a stint in the Smithsonian.
Fasthorse is quick to admit, “Period stuff really isn’t my thing.”
So, rather than simply retell the history, Fasthorse considered the problems that Timberlake encountered trying to bridge two cultures and found a modern-day parallel.
“How can I represent it in a contemporary way?” Fasthorse asked rhetorically.
The main plot line of Cherokee Family Reunion revolves around a Cherokee man, head of the Bearmeat family, marrying a white woman from the North, Emma Stone.
Following the wedding, the two families attempt to organize a giant family reunion, complete with a reenactment of Henry Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokee Nation in 1761.
But, conflict ensues. The families experience culture shock and argue about who can tell what history. In the end, the families settle their differences and become one family.
The play celebrated what family is, whether the members are bound by blood or marriage. It’s about loving each other and fighting for each other.
“The general beauty of Cherokee Family Reunion is acceptance,” said Ted Sharon, who is directing the play. Sharon has worked with Fasthorse before is also the fighting director for Mountainside Theater’s first and until recently only production Unto These Hills.
“I was excited when Larissa (Fasthorse) talked to me about (Cherokee Family Reunion),” Sharon said. “I trust her artistic sense.”
Cherokee Family Reunion is fast-paced, with lots of dancing, singing and even some rapping. The goal is to attract a multigenerational audience to the theater. People who saw Unto These Hills as children can now bring their children or grandchildren to see Cherokee Family Reunion.
“The most encouraging thing we heard today … is ‘This is the show we would bring the kids to,’” Fasthorse said after a rehearsal last week.
What is most remarkable about the play’s creation is the short time in which it was pulled together. Fasthorse is currently writing other plays for notable institutions such as the Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences in Washington, D.C., Cornerstone Theatre Company in Los Angeles and AlterTheater near San Francisco. Those venues have given her three years to write the theatrical works.
Fasthorse started writing Cherokee Family Reunion last December. For the past several weeks, the cast and crew have rehearsed for more than six hours a day in all types of weather, and in now less than a week — just seven months after starting the process, it will premiere on the Mountainside Theater stage.
The musical score for Cherokee Family Reunion is the original work of Dennie Yerry, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who also composed music for the current version of Unto These Hills. When composing the score, Yerry said, it was important that the tunes enhance the script as well as show that native people have a place in today’s music.
“It is important for native people to be seen as contemporary” and not as a thing of the past, Yerry said.
During the play, spectators can hear an English-language lullaby melded with a traditional Cherokee morning song and a rock’n’roll melody paired with a native song.
Fasthorse and Yerry are still doing rewrites on the script and score but with only a week of practice left, the play is coming together. And, people are anxiously waiting the first show.
The new play will run alongside the always-popular play, Unto These Hills, which chronicles the history of the Cherokee people from their everyday lives as hunter-gathers to their first experience with white settlers to the Trail of Tears and ending in present day Cherokee.
Sharon (first ID or re ID) emphasized that the introduction of Cherokee Family Reunion does not mean the end of Unto These Hills.
“It will never replace Unto These Hills,” Sharon said. “They are trying to add to it.”
Cherokee Family Reunion is a unique experience. Unto These Hills offers visitors an insight into Cherokee life, but Cherokee Family Reunion also gives Cherokee people an idea of what life is like as an outsider trying to fit into their culture.
Similar to everything else surrounding the play, the cast is multigenerational and comes from differing backgrounds. Some are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, while others are students in theater programs across the U.S. Auditions were held in different regions of the U.S as well as locally for talent.
The cast is a committed bunch, living in communal housing within walking distance from the theater and spending their days rehearsing and their evenings on stage.
Those involved also hope that the play will dispel any myths people may have about the Cherokee and vice versa. Sharon and Fasthorse repeatedly stated that the goal of the experience is to force people to hold a mirror up to their personal views and think deeply about whether those beliefs are right or wrong.
“When they leave the theater, they should leave different then they came,” Sharon said.
See a show
Cherokee Family Reunion, a modern tale of families coming together following a marriage, will premiere at 7:30 p.m. July 16 at the Mountainside Theater in Cherokee. It will run on a rotating schedule with the historical outdoor drama Unto These Hills through August 18.
Tickets range from $18 to $22 for adults; $8 to $12 for children 6-12; and free for those under five. They can be purchased at www.cherokeeadventure.com/tickets or by calling 828.497.1126.