- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

CHEROKEE, N.C. — When James Bradley returned to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ reservation after eight years away from the mountains of western North Carolina, he found “Unto These Hills” — the outdoor drama about Cherokee history that has been a summertime tradition for more than half a century — in disarray.

“When I came back to the show in 2000 … we had lost 50 percent of our audience,” said Mr. Bradley, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association. “The attention to detail in the show and just the little things that made the show special seemed to be gone. There really didn’t seem to be a lot of concern for the show.”

So Mr. Bradley, 42, who participated in the show for eight years as a young man, set out to remake a tradition.

“I guess the basic thing is I have a big mouth and I started talking to people: ‘We have to do something, we have to do something now,’ ” he said. “Fortunately, there were board members [of the historical association] who thought the same thing.”

Backed by $1.5 million in money generated by the tribe’s casino, Mr. Bradley led a radical makeover of “Unto These Hills.” The result is a revamped production, written and directed by leading American Indian playwright Hanay Geiogamah, that supporters say is truer to Cherokee history and traditions.

“It’s a major undertaking for all of us,” said Eddie Swimmer, a Cherokee performer who plays several roles in the new drama. “Native American people have always been storytellers, but history is always told by the conqueror. Now, it’s time for us to tell our story.”

An estimated 5 million tickets have been sold since the 1950 premiere of the original “Unto These Hills,” written by Kermit Hunter, who was a Chapel Hill graduate student. But by the summer of 2004, ticket sales had slumped to just 44,000 annually.

“Presenting the same play for that long a period of time is really quite unique in America,” said Scott Parker, director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There are times when sometimes these shows need to be refreshed and retold.”

Mr. Bradley, who first performed as a dancer in 1985, said the show was successful into the 1980s, but started to decline after members of the tribe started to compare it to Cherokee history.

“And it got to the point where local people stopped going, they stopped referring people to the show, they stopped bringing their friends to the show,” he said. “They sort of got ashamed of it.”

Last July, the tribe brought in Mr. Geiogamah, a professor of American Indian studies and theater at the University of California at Los Angeles, to lead the makeover.

“The old drama had been performed for 55 years and was replete with historical inaccuracies and an almost nonexistent portrayal of Cherokees and their culture, their music, their humor,” Mr. Geiogamah said. “It had become a very powerful anachronism right in the very heart of the Cherokee community.”

Mr. Hunter’s play was plot-driven and melodramatic, centering on the Cherokees’ betrayal by the U.S. government and the forced removal of most of the tribe from their western North Carolina homeland to Oklahoma in the late 1830s — the episode known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Mr. Geiogamah’s rewrite follows a similar outline, but is told in a less linear fashion. Two mythical Cherokee figures — Kanati, the Great Hunter, and his wife Selu, the Corn Mother — survey hundreds of years of history, from the arrival of Spanish gold-hunter Hernando de Soto in Cherokee country to the present day.

Joining Kanati and Selu are Clan Spirits — similar to the chorus in a Greek tragedy — who are charged with helping the Cherokees remember their past and make new songs and dances.

Gone are historical inaccuracies from the old play, including a depiction of the Cherokee Chief Junaluska saving the life of future President Andrew Jackson — an act now attributed to an unknown Cherokee warrior — and the suspect legend of the Cherokee warrior Tsali, once the centerpiece of the old play’s second act.

Where the old show ended on a down note, with the death of Tsali and the Cherokees’ exile to Oklahoma, the new show features a second act that focuses on the Eastern Band’s survival.

“The removal is presented in the new play as a powerful crescendo moment in the tribe’s history, but a tragedy that the tribe actually has surmounted in a way,” Mr. Geiogamah said. “They now see it as something that did happen, that they survived, that they came through.”

Mr. Bradley said he had three goals in remaking the show: historic accuracy, cultural accuracy and increased performance opportunities for Cherokees. In the old show, only about a quarter of cast members were Cherokee and it was routine for whites to play Indian parts, often wearing wigs and red makeup.

“You wouldn’t do ‘The Color Purple’ and have white people in blackface and Afro wigs,” Mr. Bradley said. This year, 60 of 75 cast members are Cherokee.

So far, the revision seems to have spurred new interest; attendance was up 44 percent in the early weeks of this summer’s run.

Jimmy Hamilton, 67, of Lexington, Ky., was deeply moved by the original version of “Unto These Hills,” which his parents took him to see when he was 13. He estimates he saw the old play a dozen times, but after watching a late June performance of the new show with wife, Julie, and 12-year-old son, Gunnar, Mr. Hamilton said he prefers the old version.

“It may not have been accurate, but it was effective,” he said.

Mr. Swimmer, a 45-year-old who lectures on Cherokee heritage and performs as a traditional hoop dancer, understands the mixed feelings. “I liked the old show myself,” he said. “It was very exciting. It was a drama.”

But the revision, he said, offers a truer depiction of his tribe. “As a Native American people, we sort of relate to a spiritual world and reality all together,” Mr. Swimmer said. “That’s what we try to do here.”

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