Tahlequah Daily Press

April 2, 2013

Shadows of the past

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Less than a decade ago, visitors to Tahlequah could witness the retelling of the forced removal of the Cherokees via the Trail of Tears drama - an outdoor event set in the Cherokee Heritage Center’s 1,800-seat Tsa-La-Gi amphitheater.

Today, the theater stands mute at the east end of the property, closed to visitors. The venue at Park Hill is part of the 44-acre plot that makes up the Cherokee Heritage Center, a non-profit organization separate from the Cherokee Nation.

The final performance of the Trail of Tears drama took place in 2005, and waning attendance prompted the venue’s closing. Code concerns – including the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires public places provide wheelchair access – have come to the fore.

“Today, the amphitheater is in need of significant repair to meet current code requirements as a public venue, while dramas are extremely costly to produce,” said Cheryl Parrish, interim executive director at CHC. “Because of the economy and the general state of nonprofits, it is increasingly important that our programs are self-sustaining and have a long-term funding source. We have partnered with Cherokee Nation, Cherokee Nation Businesses, Carson Foundation, Bud Adams and others to provide reliable funding sources for several of our larger exhibits and projects.”

Since 1969, area actors – often generations of family members – have portrayed the removal of the Cherokee in the open-air venue. The original play by Kermit Hunter, then the dean at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, was written as a companion to his outdoor drama “Unto These Hills,” which has been performed annually in Cherokee, N.C., the ancestral home of the tribe, since 1949.

On June 27, 1969, the late Principal Chief W.W. Keeler, Oklahoma Gov. Dewey Bartlett, George Shirk and other dignitaries attended the premier of the Trail of Tears drama, which took the stage each summer through 1997.

At that time, Bartlesville native Joe Sears, who was nominated for a Tony Award for 1994s “A Tuna Christmas,” rewrote the Trail of Tears script and deleted the dance sequences. When the play was revived in 2001, Sears reincorporated dancing and revised the story. Sears’ version of the drama ran through 2003, and in 2002, the American Bus Association named the show to its top 100 events in North America.

The drama was revised again by local author and playwright Layce Gardner in 2004, and the final version, written by Richard Fields, was produced in 2005.

“Most recently, the center has produced smaller-scale dramas using Adams Corner Rural Village and the Ancient Village as venues,” said Parrish. “These smaller productions proved to be popular among visitors, but still require a significant investment. We are always looking at ways we can offset costs to offer more interpretive events in the future.”

In 2007, “Under the Cherokee Moon” replaced the long-running Trail of Tears drama, but was performed in Adams Corner Rural Village and the Ancient Village, both features at the Cherokee Heritage Center. The production was billed as a dinner theater, with a more intimate setting. Seating capacity was 140, compared to the 1,800-seat amphitheater. Local author and performer Laurette Willis wrote the play, which ran through summer 2010.

After a number of proponents of the amphitheater – including world-renowned opera singer Barbara McAllister – voiced concerns about the venue’s future, a task force was formed in 2010 to determine what, if any, productions could be successful if the structure were renovated.

In an earlier Daily Press report, Paul Westbrook, a member of the amphitheater task force, pointed out that the group in Cherokee, N.C., had renovated its 2,800-seat outdoor Mountainside Theatre – where Hunter’s “Unto These Hills is Performed” – for $1.8 million, but that the venue had been in better shape than the one here in Tahlequah.


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