Standing alone on a stage and trying to explain your worldview to a crowd of strangers is a difficult undertaking. But in her memoir play And So We Walked, running through May 13 at Portland Center Stage, DeLanna Studi allows the audience a glimpse of what life is like as a modern Cherokee woman, and the awkwardness of straddling two cultural worlds.
The one-woman show begins with Studi ruminating on the importance of stories. “Every great story has truth in it, and truth demands to be told,” she says. Then she dives in, starting with an irritating question she’s often asked: “How much Indian are you?” Born to a white mother and a Cherokee father, explains Studi, her identity is complex. As an actress, she’s often told she’s “too Indian” to play white roles, yet in the Cherokee Nation, she doesn’t belong to a clan because clanship is passed down through one’s mother.
Touching upon memories from childhood—including one of a teacher telling her class that Native Indians were extinct—Studi’s story centers on finding her roots by following the Trail of Tears from her ancestral homestead in North Carolina to her family’s current home in Oklahoma. Thousands of Native Americans died along the route following Andrew Jackson’s signing of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
With the aim of interviewing elders along the way, Studi brought along her father, an old-speaker who could translate Cherokee for her. Because the project was grant-funded, she also hired a project manager who accompanied them on the six-week, 900-mile journey. Along the Trail of Tears, Studi experienced anguish over a lover who ghosted, navigated the politics of a tribal council election, and confronted her father over his disappointment in her nomadic life as an actress.
The play has a memory-like quality, jumping around in time and space, and even entering dreamlike states without warning. At times, the story is hard to follow. Studi bounces between retelling damning events erased from history books and reenacting conversations she’s had over the years, changing the accent and tone of her voice to represent a swath of characters. Changes in lighting and sound do help with these transitions, and cloth weaving through limbless trees behind the stage serve as a backdrop for projected images of the landscape Studi encountered and the historic documents she uncovered as part of her research.
With so much ground to cover, And So We Walked is fast-paced. Studi speaks rapidly to the audience, and a few tender, heart-exposing moments were cut short by quick transitions to other scenes, leaving the audience craving more intimacy.
In an interview with Portland Center Stage, Studi admitted that she wanted the story to be about the people she met along the way. But director Corey Madden urged her to dive deep and tell her own story.
The result is a play that leaves theatergoers with a better understanding of the generations of trauma that Studi has inherited. Her story forces us to revisit a part of our country’s history that some would rather bury.