Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle brings the past into the present

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The past and present mix in interesting ways in the life and work of lawyer and playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle.

Nagle arrived in Fayetteville last week from her home in Skiatook, Oklahoma, where she lives on a lake on the Osage reservation. She’s here to work on her new play, “Crossing Mnisose,” which is one of five new plays being performed at the Arkansas New Play Festival at TheatreSquared. The interrelationship between past and present is at the forefront of the play, which moves back and forth between the early 19th century and the present day, melding historical people and events, with modern day, fictional characters.

Nagle was inspired to write “Crossing Mnisose” after hearing a lecture on Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who provided indispensable help to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The lecturer spoke at length about how violent Native men were at that time, but said nothing of the rapes, beatings and abuse Sacajawea suffered at the hands of Toussaint Charbonneau, the French-Canadian fur trader to whom she was sold at age 13.

“I wanted to write the experience that Sacajawea actually had,” said Nagle during a break from rehearsals and rewrites of her script. “What is her actual, real story?”

Around the same time, Nagle was commissioned by the Portland Center Stage in Oregon to write a play for its “Northwest Stories” program, the only requirement being that the play relate to the Pacific Northwest. Wearing her lawyer hat, Nagle was involved then with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, who were protesting the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, which would allow an oil pipeline to run from western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and part of a lake near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

It was while driving along the Missouri River from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Fort Yates, that a number of ideas she was nurturing coalesced into what became “Crossing Mnisose.”

“To me, the parallels were so clear,” she says. “You’ve got Lewis and Clark crossing the Missouri with the Corps of Discovery and you’ve got the Army Corps of Engineers, which is the same government entity, crossing the Missouri with the Dakota Access Pipeline. Those two stories are in parallel. And where is Sacajawea’s voice in all of that? If she were alive today, who would she be? That’s how I was inspired to write this play.”

I’m going to show you the past and I’m gong to show you how the past keeps repeating itself in the present.

— Mary Kathryn Nagle

Sacajawea, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Toussaint Charbonneau all appear in “Crossing Mnisose,” along with modern day counterparts participating on both sides of the Dakota Access controversy.

An earlier play of Nagle’s, “Manahatta,” which is currently running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, mixes past and present in a similar way. In it, Nagle draws a connection between the Dutch settlers that bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape, eventually forcibly removing the Lenape from their homes, and the Wall Street banks, which four hundred years later drove millions from their homes when the real estate bubble burst.

“I keep hearing from artistic directors that we can’t produce your play because Natives are in the past and we’re looking for contemporary stories,” she says, rejecting the notion that audiences are only interested in contemporary stories or that Native stories only exist in the past. “My response is, ‘I’m going to show you the past and I’m gong to show you how the past keeps repeating itself in the present.’ That’s my goal with these plays.”

Nagle grew up in Joplin, Missouri, and attended high school in the Kansas City area. A storyteller from an early age, she won a student one-act contest as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, where she also wrote her first full-length play called “Miss Lead,” about lead mining on Oklahoma reservations. She has pursued twin careers since finishing law school at Tulane. She is a partner in a six-person law firm, whose practice is focused almost exclusively on Native clients. In the past two years she has had plays produced at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Crossing Mnisose” will be produced at the Portland Center Stage next year.

“It’s crazy, but it’s working for right now,” she says. “I can’t control when my briefs are due, so sometimes it means not sleeping. I love being a lawyer and I can’t imagine giving that up. And I’m certainly not going to give up being a playwright.”

What: A staged reading of “Crossing Mnisose”
When: Thursday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Cost: $10
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or

* A reading of selections from the play will be performed at 4 p.m. June 15 at The Record in Bentonville, part of the 2018 Native American Cultural Symposium.

While she’s in town, Nagle plans to make two visits to sites with strong family connections. A portrait of John Ridge, her great-great-great-grandfather, is on view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. A Cherokee leader in the early 19th century, Ridge and his father were assassinated by fellow Cherokees for their role in negotiating the treaty that led to the “Trail of Tears,” the removal of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral homeland in Georgia to Oklahoma. Ridge studied law, one of the first Indians to do so, but because of his race, he was not allowed to sit for the bar or to practice. It was his example that inspired Nagle to become a lawyer.

She also plans to check out the Sarah Bird Northrup Ridge House. Following her husband’s murder, Sarah Ridge moved with her seven children to this house on West Center Street. The oldest house still standing in Fayetteville, it is now owned by the Washington County Historical Society and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Nagle’s play “Sovereignty,” produced last year at Arena Stage, is about her grandfathers, the Supreme Court decision that that declared Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign nation and President Andrew Jackson’s refusal to enforce that ruling. (The play will be performed in Catoosa, Oklahoma, near Tulsa, at the Cherokee Nation Hard Rock Casino and Hotel on Monday, June 18, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at

“I’m obsessed with bringing our past into our present because it’s here, it’s with us, we carry it with us,” she says. “We’ve chosen, as an American society, to try to erase it or ignore it and I think that’s to our detriment, collectively. To ignore the history of this land harms everyone, regardless of race. I think part of the extreme conflict we’re facing in this country today is because we haven’t fully faced who we are as a nation and how we got here. There’s a lot of conflict because of that.”

A staged reading of “Crossing Mnisose” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 14 at the Nadine Baum Studios in Fayetteville. A reading of selections from the play will be performed June 15 at 4 p.m. at The Record in Bentonville, part of the 2018 Native American Cultural Symposium.