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Chickasaw playwright brings Te Ata’s story to the stage

CHICKASHA, Okla. – Thirteen years ago, Chickasaw playwright JudyLee Oliva began searching for the connection between Native performance and contemporary theater. Leaving her teaching position at the University of Tennessee, she returned to Oklahoma to begin her search for what at the time was an elusive connection.

While doing research at the University of Oklahoma Western History Collection, she stumbled across the files of another Chickasaw woman who had been looking for that same common ground almost 80 years before.

That other Chickasaw woman was Te Ata, who began her career as an Oklahoma theater student, eventually performing Shakespeare in New York and Native stories for such notables as Eleanor Roosevelt and the king and queen of England.

“I had instant connection,” said Oliva. “To me, that was a story right there. I knew that I wanted to meet her and write about her. My life changed that day.”

After discovering Te Ata’s papers and letters, Oliva befriended Te Ata and her extended family nearly two years before Te Ata’s death in 1995, short of her 100th birthday. Inspired by her life story, Oliva eventually wrote the script and lyrics to “Te Ata,” which will premiere as a full production Aug. 5 – 13 at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (formerly the Oklahoma College for Women) in Chickasha, Okla., on the stage where Te Ata’s theater career began.

The story focuses on the elder Te Ata looking back upon her life, watching the younger Te Ata go through the struggles of a Native woman trying to succeed as both a student and an actress, and then learning that she can be successful on her own terms.

Upon entering college, Te Ata was a shy student who was encouraged to act by her professor, Frances Davis. Upon her graduation from OCW, where Te Ata was the first Native graduate, she entered graduate school at Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pa. Her acting career really took off after her move to Pittsburgh, and she was featured on the June 1924 cover of McCall’s, where she was encouraged to wear a man’s headdress. According to Oliva, it was a compromise she regretted.

“As she got older and she began to have more confidence with her husband and Mrs. Davis, her teacher, she began to find that balance,” said Oliva. “She began to realize, ‘I can say no.’ What’s great about what she did was she educated people about appropriate behavior and the kind of respect Native people have for certain things. Rather than being critical to the white world, she entered their world and she educated them.”

It is also a love story that focuses on the relationships between Te Ata and her family, and Te Ata and her husband, Clyde Fisher, curator of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. In addition, “Te Ata” features music from composer Jay Vosk, known for his collaborations with Carlos Nakai.

One of the cast members in this production is Cherokee actress DeLanna Studi, known for her work as the Kiowa character of Talks a Lot in “Dreamkeeper” and a one-woman show “KICK,” that deals with the subject of Indian mascots in sports.

Studi said that she draws upon many of her own life experiences for her role as the young Te Ata. However, she also spoke of the struggle to bring someone as well accomplished as Te Ata was to the stage.

“How do you play a legend?” Studi said. “And Te Ata is a legend, and I’m going through that in my own mind, because I want to make her a person. I want to make her realistic.”

For Studi, Oliva’s play shows “the Native American struggle as actors and as people as well,” Studi said. “I feel like every Native person has this fine line. It’s a struggle trying to find out who you are, and how you fit into the scheme of things.”

Studi also said she appreciated Oliva’s portrayal of Te Ata as “a take-charge woman,” she added. “When she realized that the only parts she would be getting would be stereotypical roles, she went out and created her own one-woman show.”

If there’s anything that could be said about the legacy of Te Ata, Oliva said that she saw it as “one of perseverance,” she said, “to believe in something, to have the training to do it, and find a way to do it. She persevered and found the best way to entertain and tell people about Native ways at a time when not only was it difficult for Native people, but it was difficult for women.”

Oliva’s hope for this production is that it will inspire both Native writers and actors “to get our stories told,” she said. “I don’t mean to be told in a small, little theater somewhere. I think our stories need to be told in mainstream theater for all people to see.”