Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
After years of planning and delays with financing and now the pandemic stalling all theatrical shows, the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma has announced it will present the world premiere of the Native American Musical "Distant Thunder" in spring 2021.
The show has staged readings over the years but never a full production. With the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision reaffirming that eastern Oklahoma is tribal land, this takes on added significance.
“Now, more than ever, we need to remember the importance of new musical works in their ability to give voice, share experiences and celebrate the lives of diverse peoples and cultures,” said Lyric’s Producing Artistic Director Michael Baron. "I am proud to have 'Distant Thunder' premiere at Lyric Theatre, where Native American tribes are an integral and important part of the state of Oklahoma.”
The theater will present the show as part of its New Works Initiative, which was developed to help it commit to producing world premiere musicals.
The show posted a special preview from the "Distant Thunder" performers:
"Distant Thunder" originally was scheduled to debut in April, but rehearsals were cut short because of the pandemic.
Casting for the production includes: Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Darrell, Ryan Duncan as Hector or Sam Silver, Spencer Battiest portrays Tonto, Xander Chauncey as Jim Running Crow, Jonathan Lynch portrays Smudge, Chelsea Zeno will be Shareen and the tourist, April Ortiz as Betty Still Smoking, Brent G. Florendo - Sitwalla - Pum as the Old Man, Jeff Barehand portrays White Feather, Matoaka Little Eagle as Grandma Jingle Dress, Carolyn Dunn as Roberta, Katie McCollum portrays Aiyana, Johnlee Lookingglass will be Sheriff Running Buck, Angela Gomez as Dorothy Dark Eyes, and Chava Florendo portrays the powwow singer and musician.
Its authors — Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Shaun Taylor-Corbett and Chris Wiseman — said they were fortunate to have a strong leader in Baron, who quickly rescheduled the opening.
"Our cast was safely on planes within 48 hours,” they said in a statement. "Fighting through the feelings of loss in subsequent weeks, we put together this performance of one of our songs, a message, deeply embedded in Native culture: Endure and continue to tell stories that enlighten and inspire and ‘Hold On’ to our collective humanity.”
Creating the “Hold On” video was a way "for us each to record at home separately but still feel connected to the show," Shaun Taylor-Corbett said in an email.
"Distant Thunder" tells the story of Darrell Waters, a successful young attorney who returns to his childhood home in Montana to try to broker a deal that can benefit his tribe, the Blackfeet Nation.
When he arrives, he faces his reclusive father and confronts him about their painful past while grappling with what it means to be Native American in the United States today. The two sides clash and attempt to unite through music, dance, stories and spirituality.
“As a young person striving to make sense of my identity, I longed to learn more about the Indigenous ancestry on my father’s side,” Shaun Taylor-Corbett said.
Taylor-Corbett said he is also Black and Swedish and didn’t learn much about the Blackfeet part of his culture until he was 15, when his mother and co-writer, two-time Tony nominee Lynne Taylor-Corbett, took him to the reservation.
"I was overwhelmed with meeting so many great people there who would go on to become dear friends, family and mentors throughout my life journey," Shaun Taylor-Corbett wrote.
During that trip, he stayed with Darrell Robes Kipp, a Harvard graduate and a founder of the Piegan Institute, which promotes, researches and preserves Native languages.
"Darrell taught us the importance of language as a portal to our culture and why we have to fight so hard to preserve it," Shaun Taylor-Corbett said. "I began learning the Blackfeet language, Nitsipowahsin, and the vision for our story began to come together.”
“Distant Thunder" explores themes of identity, language and home. The authors wanted to tell the story through musical theater to reach a large entertainment market "where Native artists could express contemporary issues as contemporary people,” Shaun Taylor-Corbett said.
Casting for the production includes Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Darrell, Ryan Duncan as Hector/Sam Silver and singer Spencer Battiest as Tonto.
“I have been lucky enough to be part of the past readings and performances of 'Distant Thunder' in NYC and Los Angeles,” Battiest says from his home in Hollywood, Florida. “And now to bring the full production and world premiere to Oklahoma is so thrilling."
Battiest said his father and grandparents are proud members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
"So to be part of a production that’s in their home state and Indian Country is something really special. I know audiences, especially Native ones, will appreciate the story line, and I can’t wait to be on stage with the cast next year.”
Lynne Taylor-Corbett is director-choreographer.
"All cast members add their own cultural touch to the show," Shaun Taylor-Corbett said. "Our cast represents a wide range of Native nations, including Wasco, Blackfeet, Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Apache, Yakama, Tewa, Tigua, Gila River, Navajo, Shawnee, and Colombian Yamasi.”
Many of the characters were inspired by the authors and their family members.
“Because I am a mixed-race person like the main character, Darrell, we based a lot of his journey on my experience; how I often feel like I walk with a moccasin in each world," Shaun Taylor-Corbett said. "My dynamic with my father is also something we drew upon for the family story in the show and our quest for healing."
Other characters were inspired by people they met over the years.
"As a teenager, I remember bonding with some young Blackfeet kids at Indian Days, the big yearly powwow in Browning, MT," Shaun Taylor-Corbett said. "The rebellious young characters in the show were inspired by them and some of the struggles Native youth face trying to create their own paths in the modern world. Our character, Betty, embodies all of those tough, great aunties who take responsibility for their families and take on any challenge with grit and humor.”
Casting for the show took a long time because the creators wanted to find Native artists who could be triple threats: people who could act; sing pop and traditional music; and dance in both powwow and musical theater style.
"We like to think of our show as more of a Native theater company at this point," Taylor-Corbett said.
They've been building the cast over the years with the help of Native Voices at the Autry, created by Randy Reinholz and Jean Bruce Scott, and casting director Rene Haynes.
Incorporating music into the story became a fusion of contemporary sounds and traditional Native music.
“For many years, I have been a pop song writer along with Chris Wiseman, the co-writer of the music and lyrics for the show,” Shaun Taylor-Corbett says. “We wanted to make a lot of the music contemporary pop/rock, infused with a traditional Indigenous sound, which Native artists Robert Greygrass, Joseph Fire Crow and Brent Florendo have all contributed to. The latest version of our score even combines the Florendo family songs with our pop songs.”
The challenges of producing the show have stretched on for years, but Shaun Taylor-Corbett sees it as a positive experience.
“It has been a long but fun journey!” he says.
"Distant Thunder" will be staged at Lyric at the Plaza, 1725 NW 16 St., in spring 2021. For more information, visit www.LyricTheatreOKC.org
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.
This story has been corrected to show that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling reaffirms eastern Oklahoma is tribal land.