“This is a chance to look at the first genocide,” said director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj as he opened last night’s performance of “Trail of Tears” at The Nuyorican Poets Café. The emotional storm of dance, song and soliloquy casts a satirical eye on the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 1830s.
Though too often forgotten, Maharaj said, the tragedy served as a precursor to the enslavement of Africans – bruises on the face of this country that have yet to heal. He quoted a long-gone English chief: “When you acknowledge the dead, the dead stand taller.”
The play opens in the present day, with a young Native American girl — its central thread — contemplating suicide and calling on a spirit of her people, who dances around her. The company reenacts the beatings, abuse and terror of the trail, while intermittently circling back to her. It’s a jolting reminder that the past continues to inform the present, but satire prevents the viewer from being crushed by the heavy subject matter.
Comic relief comes in the form of overly bright smiles, ridiculous silver wigs, and frantic clapping during reenacted speeches by Thomas Jefferson and succeeding presidents who championed removal of the “savages.” All of which highlight the hypocrisies and atrocities committed by the state. Choruses of “Yankee Doodle Dandee” and “This Little Light of Mine” are quickly dismantled by the purity of Native American chants and drumming.
“Many indigenous people throughout history have told stories through dance and through movement,” said one of the actors, Javon Minter, after the show. “It’s something a little more guttural, a little more primal. When I get into something that physical I find the truth.”
These visceral aspects intertwine with true stories and speeches from advocates and officials to create a full, bloody picture of the Cherokee experience and all Native American tribes. At the end of “Trail of Tears” you begin to question the origins of this country and the people who founded it (if you haven’t already).
“I think it was incredibly powerful and a story you don’t ever hear,” said audience member Dominique Bravo, who wiped away tears during the performance. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of the Native American [history] explained as genocide.”
“This foundation of systematic oppression against marginalized people, Native Americans, will keep being built upon and layered unless we take note of it,” said Dan Rosensweet, a Jewish man also in the audience last night. He explained that the “white washing” of the Holocaust is similar to the biased information about the Trail of Tears taught in high schools. “Just because things change doesn’t mean they’re better. And just because things get better doesn’t mean that they’re complete and over.”
This legacy resonates for the cast members – some of whom have Native American heritage. Michael Nephew, one of the older actors, spoke of his grandfather who was taken from his home on the back of a government agent’s horse at five years old. As an adult, his grandfather would go into the woods to speak Cherokee to the animals. Nephew also has ancestors who were part of the Trail of Tears before finding sanctuary in the surrounding hills.
“We hope to open up people’s eyes. A lot of people don’t know what happened on the trail,” said Nephew. “They don’t realize that many actually died or that there were rapes and tortures on the way.”
A fellow actor, Alana Inez, wrapped her arms around his shoulders and said, “I want to honor those who came before me.”
“Trail of Tears,” a co-production by Rebel Theater Company, The Eagle Project and The Nuyorican Poets Café, through July 26 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 236 E 3rd St, East Village; tickets $25