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Cherokee musical focuses on life of Will Holland Thomas

art frAbout 30 people sat scattered around the 2,800-seat Mountainside Theater in Cherokee, watching the makings of something that has never graced the stage there before.

After debuting its first new play in more than 60 years last year, the Cherokee Historical Association will take another giant leap by premiering the theater’s first historical musical, “Chief Little Will,” in 2014.


“We are going to give it a stab,” said award-winning playwright Rob Lauer, prefacing the first staged reading of his musical. “We want you to use your imagination because actors will be playing multiple roles.”

The actors showcased in the early rehearsal of the musical are also in the ongoing summer’s production of “Unto These Hills,” which tells the story the Trail of Tears. “Unto These Hills” was the only play performed at the Mountainside Theater until last year’s production of “Emissaries of Peace,” marking the 250th anniversary of the journeys of English envoy Henry Timberlake and Cherokee interpreter Ostenaco.

For the past three weeks, in between six-day-a-week performances, the actors rehearsed “Chief Little Will.”

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The musical, already two years in the making, won’t show to a full audience until next summer though.

“The goal is to work out the kinks this year,” said John Tissue, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association, which oversees Oconaluftee Indian Village as well as the theater.

Following a short spoken introduction, performers, all adhering to a dress code of black shirts and jeans, proceed onto the stage with binders in hand to belt out the first song, a praise to Carolina mornings, and introduce the audience to a young Will Holland Thomas, who would later grow up to become the first and only white Cherokee chief. He was nicknamed Will-usdi, or Little Will.

As a young boy, Thomas worked at trading post in near Soco and learned the Cherokee language and about its culture. Chief Yonaguska, famous for his calls for temperance, later adopted him and appointed him his successor upon his death. Will Cooper, the main character in Charles Frazier’s 2006 novel 13 Moons, is based in part on Thomas.

The musical is littered with motifs of finding one’s identity and accepting other cultures. It also shows that from humble beginnings can come great things. Thomas went from being a poor young man to chief of an entire tribe.

Throughout the performance, Thomas questions his identity. He is white by most standards but also feels Cherokee. While the Cherokee people accept him, there are also times where they identify him with white men, some of whom were trying to kill the Cherokee or take their land away.

For the musical, Lauer occasionally draws on other famous works. When Yonaguska adopts Thomas, he tells him the creation story of the Cherokee people, which will include dancing and people dressed as the first animals, reminiscent of “The Lion King” scenes when Simba is born and when his father explains his place in the animal kingdom.

Later when the Cherokee are pushing back against the white settlers’ attempts to remove them from their land, Thomas cries, “Let my people stay” over and over. The call is in the same vein as Moses’ plea in the Bible to let his people out of Eygpt.

Tying together the key events in Thomas’ life is his own retelling of it to a man from the Smithsonian Institution after Thomas was put in a mental hospital in Eastern North Carolina. Thomas went crazy later in life and was institutionalized. It isn’t clear why, but one theory is that he contracted syphilis. Sections of his conversation with the Smithsonian representative bookend the musical and are also smattered throughout it.

At times, he did not know who he was, or rather had been, which reinforced the motif of trying to find one’s identity and place.

“We had that double identity. That intrigued me,” Lauer said.

Following the preview, attendees and some of the stand-in actors offered complements and criticisms to Lauer.

Comments ranged from adding more of a “wow” factor in the beginning to building up toward the climax of the musical more to giving a second thought to artistic choices that could be misconstrued, such as only using derogatory terms such as injun and redskin sparingly to show people’s biased and make a point.

“We don’t want to offend anyone,” Lauer said.

Lauer will head back his home in Virginia to work on rewrites of the musical, now that he has seen it played out and received feedback from others. He will do some major rewrites and perfect the musical before its debut next summer.



About the playwright

Rob Lauer is an award-winning playwright and director from Virginia. He has written several plays including the 1982 Mayhew award-winning “Digger,” the Paul T. Nolan award-winning “The Church Street Fantasy,” and “Tom and Penny’s Yard Party,” which won the Best Play of the Year award at the Deep South Writers conference.

Lauer also founded the Olde Theatre Company in Virginia in 1986. His most recent works are the musical “My Jo,” based on works of Louisa May Alcott, and the comedy “Geeks & Gangsters,” about the people who created Superman.


About William Holland Thomas

Thomas was born on Feb. 5, 1805, near Raccoon Creek just outside of what is now Waynesville and died on May 10, 1893. He was a state senator from 1848-1860. As a youth, he worked at a Soco trading post, learned the Cherokee language and befriended some of the people. He was adopted into the tribe by the chief Yonaguska, learned much of the Cherokee ways, and was named by the chief as his successor. Thomas represented the tribe in negotiations with the federal government related to Indian Removal, preserving the right of Yonaguska and other Cherokee to stay in North Carolina after the 1830s. With his own and Cherokee funds, he bought land in North Carolina to be used by the Cherokee, much of which is now the Qualla Boundary, the territory of the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee. 

Thomas served as a colonel in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, when he led Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders. Will Cooper, the main character in Charles Frazier’s 2006 novel Thirteen Moons, is based in part on William Holland Thomas. In the Author’s Note, Frazier states that Will Cooper is not William Holland Thomas, “although they do share some DNA.”

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