“Every great story has truth in it, and the truth demands to be told,” the Cherokee writer-actor DeLanna Studi says at the beginning of “And So We Walked,” her autobiographical solo show at the Emerson Paramount Center. “And a true story is dangerous.”
Dangerous to what, and to whom? Well, in the case of “And So We Walked,” the danger is to complacent assumptions — and to those who are determined to hold onto them — about our national past.
As you may have heard, a political battle has flared up over how to teach the ugly chapters of US history, replete with efforts to whitewash them. “And So We Walked,” presented by ArtsEmerson through Sunday, registers as a timely corrective to that kind of willful amnesia.
Directed by Corey Madden, it’s a dramatization of Studi’s six-week, 900-mile journey on the Trail of Tears, on foot and by car, retracing the path followed by her ancestors.
The Trail of Tears was the name given to the forced relocation of Indigenous people from their lands in the southeastern United States to territories west of the Mississippi. This atrocity occurred after Andrew Jackson — you know, the guy on the $20 bill, the president whose portrait Donald Trump saw fit to hang in the Oval Office — signed the Indian Removal Act. Studi’s ancestors were among the 17,000 Cherokee forced from their homelands, starting in 1830. Traveling through nine states and often receiving brutal treatment, 4,000 of them died of starvation, disease, and exposure.
“And So We Walked” takes place on a seven-sided platform (scenic design is by John Coyne) behind which are large pieces of white fabric woven between wooden planks. Onto that fabric are projected images of maps, people, and landscapes (projections are by Norman Coates).
It is a history lesson folded within a quest narrative, or perhaps the other way around. It’s a personal narrative, too, built on Studi’s loving but contentious relationship with her proud, principled, taciturn father, who accompanies her on the journey. (At 9, he had been taken from his family and placed in a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, where he remained through high school.)
The play is an inquiry into Studi’s heritage, a family drama, a chronicle of a woman coming into her own, with subplots running alongside the main story, about Studi’s efforts to land a role in an off-Broadway show and to figure out what’s what with a mercurial maybe-boyfriend.
That’s a lot to pack in, and the result is that “And So We Walked” feels overlong and is sometimes unwieldy. But overall it’s a stirring work. Studi is an engaging narrator, and apart from the cloying voice she uses to depict herself as a child, her quick-sketch portraits of multiple characters are skillfully wrought. She performs with such passionate commitment that she was in tears at the curtain call Wednesday night.
“And So We Walked” wrestles with the complexities of identity. Studi grew up in small-town Liberty, Okla., the daughter of “a beautiful German-Irish woman often mistaken for Elizabeth Taylor” and “a handsome Cherokee man, the tall, silent type often mistaken for the local sheriff.” In first grade, her teacher was discussing the “First Thanksgiving” with the Pilgrims and the Indians. Young DeLanna excitedly shot her hand up and said: “Mrs. Jacobs! I’m an Indian.” The teacher’s reply: “No, you’re not, honey. Indians are extinct.” Her father sets the teacher straight.
In Tennessee, she and her father visit the site of an internment camp — a guide euphemistically calls it an “Emigration Depot” — where thousands of Cherokee were kept, and many died. In the Smoky Mountains, Studi gets to see her father converse in the Cherokee language with a revered elder. In her dreams, she sees visions of her grandmothers, reminding her of the price her people paid in blood.
Studi hasn’t forgotten, but she believes too many have.
“Are their descendants troubled by the part their ancestors played in the Trail of Tears?” she asks. “Do their grandmothers haunt their dreams? Does their blood remember? I don’t think so. They erased our story from their memories and their history long ago, but I can’t. And I never will.”
AND SO WE WALKED
Written and performed by DeLanna Studi
Directed by Corey Madden
Originally produced by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts. Tour produced by Octopus Theatricals and presented by ArtsEmerson at Emerson Paramount Center, Boston. Through April 30. Tickets from $25. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org