Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

The Great Seal of the Choctaw Nation
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Kathleen Hardgrove, bottom right, directs her cast as they prepare for the production of Antigone: At War. Rebecca Sparks is atop the stairs while Tanner Risner, left, and Dustin Curry listen at the bottom. Both Tanner and Dustin will be a part of the Smithsonian production.

Setting the stage for a hit:
Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Choctaw Nation team up for theatrical debut at Smithsonian

The curtain is set to open this summer on the very first theatrical production featuring the dual efforts of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) and Theatre at Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SE). This tag-team effort will take place at the annual Choctaw Days event hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, June 20-23.

After the success of last year’s Choctaw Days, CNO has been reaching out even further to bring exciting and immersive talents to this showcase of Choctaw heritage and culture. “Given their close ties with the Choctaw people, knowledge of the culture and exceptional talent, SE was an easy choice to bring Choctaw ways to life on the stage of the Rasmusen,” said Chief Gregory E. Pyle.

Though not yet finalized, the working title of the production is “It Wasn’t Code to Us,” and will cover a great variety of Choctaw aspects, with an emphasis on the World War 1 Code Talkers who pioneered using a native language as military code. It is “an interesting look into the expanse of the Choctaw language,” said Director Kathleen Hardgrove of SE’s staff.

The production will also give glimpses into Choctaw issues such as stickball, basket making and many others as it follows a young Choctaw woman who learns about her heritage from an elder of the tribe. Her education will be the underlying plot tying the wide spectrum of Choctaw culture together.

The performance will be in dual narrative featuring the truest form of the Choctaw language, and will be presented in an ambitious new style termed “theatrical collage.” In this style of presentation, actors on the stage will be accompanied by sound tracks, videos, picture montages and will be acting opposite filmed actors who will be filmed on sets in Oklahoma.

“Obviously we can’t play stickball on the stage, but we want to show a lot of visuals of iconic [scenes] of the nation,” said Hardgrove as she explained how the video and picture aspects will work to immerse the audience further into the Choctaw experience. Hardgrove and her theatre crew have been perfecting this new style with other productions, most recently with the Greek play, Antigone.

While the style of the production may be a new technique, the content about the Choctaw people is well-rooted in American history. Professor Randy Prus of SE’s English Department has taken the charge to write the content of the play.

Prus has been well-versed in the Choctaw culture and was an easy pick to write the content. “He is the expert on campus,” mentioned Hardgrove as she reiterated his qualification. He has been in contact with various cultural experts within the Choctaw Nation to bring the most accurate and intriguing script to the stage.

“I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about the Choctaw people and culture, especially their history,” said Prus as he discussed his motivation for his work on the project. “I’ve never done anything quite like this before and welcomed the opportunity to learn new things, meet new people, and work on a collaborative effort. I hope people recognize some of the uniqueness of Oklahoma Choctaw, mostly I hope people enjoy it and it makes their lives a little bit sweeter,” he continued.

CNO is very excited to have its heritage displayed yet again at the Smithsonian, especially through the medium of performing arts. With almost 30 percent of the student body being Native American, SE has not only the capability to bring that heritage to life, but the background and close ties with the culture.

There are over 500 Choctaw students at SE, lending the university to a heavy dose of Choctaw ways and history. SE has offered classes on the Choctaw language for years, and in the fall of 2011, an 18-hour minor in Choctaw became available.

With a venue as renown as the Rasmusen on their summer roster, no one has to explain the opportunity this production presents for the students of SE. “My students are extremely excited to be a part of this,” stated Hardgrove as she told how her students anticipated the occasion and collaboration with CNO. “It’s definitely something that is going on next year’s recruitment brochures,” she continued.

The upcoming trip to the Smithsonian is a summer plan that has the Theatre at SE crowd buzzing, but it is far from their first round with prestigious venues. SE has been conducting the Hamlet Tour recently, which is a small version of Shakespear’s Hamlet, written by the Chair of Art, Communication and Theatre at SE, Dell McLain, while on sabbatical in New York working with professional actors.

They have taken the Hamlet Tour across Oklahoma and Arkansas to cities such as Tulsa and Eureka Springs. That performance has even been conducted at the Globe of the Great Southwest, the only standing replica of Shakespeare’s globe in the United States, located in Odessa, Texas.

Along with their Hamlet Tour, SE has preformed in and hosted several festivals. They have also performed across the country in locations as far as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and have plans on gracing the Stella Adler Theater in Los Angeles.

In addition to the many productions and festivals SE hosts and attends on a regular basis, they also host after-school plays for children, produce student films and demonstrate student written and directed plays annually.

The high level of both quality and quantity of work that pours out from Theatre at SE not only stems from a highly motivated and talented student body, but an exceptionally well-qualified staff. According to McClain, every theatre faculty member at SE currently works professionally in the industry.

Hardgrove, who is leading this production, graduated from SE and went on to work as a teacher, costume designer, actor and director in various places such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York. Her time touring across the country has led her to theatre work in every state in the continental U.S.

She decided to bring her experiences and knowledge back to SE because she liked the way they trained and is now the theatre historian. She still travels nationally and internationally to attend the most world-renown tours such as the Humana Festival to gather ideas, trends and techniques to deliver to the students of SE. These travels are prime examples of how SE is meeting its charge to “bring the world to SE.”

The cooperative effort between CNO and SE is sure to be a hit at Choctaw Days coming in June. SE has high hopes to bring to life the rich culture of the Choctaw people in a fun and immersive way. It is a chance for both organizations to shine in the national spotlight.

If you would like to know more about Theatre at SE, contact 580-745-2735 or visit homepages.se.edu/theatre/. For more information on Choctaw Days, contact 800-522-6170, or visit choctawnation.com.