When historical facts are considered inappropriate for the classroom, it can be an act of protest to simply speak the truth.
As groups on the political right in the United States scramble to yank books from the shelves of school libraries, particularly books that deal frankly with racism, or that feature main characters who are LGBTQ or people of color, an observer may be reminded of a quote by the late Utah Phillips.
“The long memory is the most radical idea in this country,” the folksinger and activist once remarked.
From that perspective, Cherokee actor-playwright DeLanna Studi performs a radical act by stepping onstage to perform “And So We Walked,” as she’ll do at the Emerson Paramount Center for six performances beginning Wednesday evening in a show produced by ArtsEmerson.
“And So We Walked” tells Studi’s story about joining with her father to retrace the Trail of Tears, the arduous, thousand-mile journey by which the US government forcibly relocated many Cherokee people from North Carolina to territory in what is now Oklahoma, beginning around 1830. An estimated 4,000 Native people died along the forced march, making room for white, European colonists who wished to occupy their homeland.
As Studi traveled the historic route by foot and by automobile, she reconnected with her heritage, meeting with Cherokee along the way and deepening her relationship with her father, Thomas. With assistance from producer-director Corey Madden, she translated her experiences into a one-person show in which Studi portrays about 30 characters.
“When I was in North Carolina, I had a lot of teachers that came to see the show, who would come up to me afterwards and say they’re going to start working towards changing their curriculum,” Studi said on the phone from Rochester, N.Y., in between performances.
“Obviously you don’t want to go into the gory details for the kindergartners,” Studi said, “but at the same time, how do we start telling the truth about who we are as a nation? I do believe when we share that truth, we can actually grow from it. We can learn from it and hopefully never repeat the same mistakes.”
Studi, the daughter of a white woman and a Cherokee man, has experience seeing history erased in the classroom. She recounts a moment from her childhood when a teacher contradicted her assertion that she was Indigenous, explaining that “Indians are extinct” nowadays.
In her recollection of the incident, which sits near the beginning of the show, her father accompanied her to school the next day to confront the teacher with the plain fact of his non-extinction. The teacher replied, “That’s what we’re required to teach.”
Studi employs Cherokee storytelling techniques in the two-act show, including a framing device involving an unnamed storyteller; appearances by Spearfinger, a shape-shifting woman from ancient Cherokee lore; and periodic reassurances from a chorus of ancestors known as the Grandmothers. She weaves in many personal details, including a fatal car crash she was involved in and an ill-fated romance that unraveled as she traveled the Trail of Tears.
“A lot of Indigenous stories are very circular in nature, and there’s so many different threads that you are braiding together, and [the listener is] not really sure why that thread is there until the end of the story, when you see it has a cohesive pattern,” Studi said.
Madden, the director, said in a separate phone call that American theater producers urged her and Studi to reshape the somewhat sprawling play into a tidy, 90-minute one-act.
“I think we could be making a mistake in theaters on the producing side when we jam someone’s art into a producer’s shoe,” said Madden, who co-commissioned “And So We Walked” from her seat as executive director of the Kenan Institute for the Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “In this situation, I felt the role was to defend Indigenous storytelling.”
As she’s developed and performed “And So We Walked” in recent years, Studi had her first opportunity to perform in a play produced off-Broadway. She also appears in the Hulu series “Reservation Dogs” as the mother of a Native American child. And while she was only called to audition for explicitly Native American characters in the past, she said she’s graduated to auditions for roles that casting directors envision as suitable for any non-white person — typically as a supporting role in a show with a white main character.
That counts as progress, she said.
“For a long time, Native people didn’t even get called in for those because people just forgot we existed whenever they thought of minorities,” Studi said.
“It’s not uncommon for me, whenever I speak at a school that is not in what is considered to be Indian county, that a lot of kids are surprised to see an American Indian,” she added. “It’s really so fascinating to me that they’re not being taught about who we are.”
The creators of “And So We Walked” hope it will give audience members something they’ll remember — for a long time.
AND SO WE WALKED
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. April 26-30. Tickets from $25. 617-824-8400, artsemerson.org
Contact Jeremy D. Goodwin at firstname.lastname@example.org.