CHEROKEE — On the Summer Solstice, June 21, the sun set in Cherokee at 8:52 p.m., nearly an hour after “Unto These Hills” had begun.
The lingering light added to the drama in the outdoor amphitheater, the long twilight lending a surreal aspect to the spectacle of Cherokee Indians dancing on the ground where their antecedents have lived for thousands of years. As darkness slowly descended, fireflies twinkled and muskets flashed.
“Unto These Hills” is not the oldest outdoor drama in the country or even the state, but at nearly 70 years old, it is venerable.
“Ramona” in California is older, as is “The Lost Colony” in Manteo, but the inherent drama of “Unto These Hills,” with its hardship, betrayal and injustice provides an object lesson for 2019.
“There’s no better example of what happens when you discriminate against individuals than what happened to the Cherokee,” said John Tissue, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association. “Their story is very appropriate for today.
“One of our missions is human rights, and this is a good message for the public.”
“Unto These Hills” dramatizes the Cherokee Indian story from its “beginning,” through some happy times co-existing with white people, through broken promises to the ultimate betrayal that culminated in the forced march of the 17,000 of the tribe to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.
More than 5,000 of them died on the journey from hypothermia, disease or starvation. About 1,000 stayed behind, hid in the Smoky Mountains and were declared outlaws. Their descendants comprise the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.
The play, by Kermit Hunter who also wrote “Horn in the West,” opened in 1950. It has a cast of 80. In addition to the narrative drama, there are plenty of special effects; expect gunshots and cannon blasts.
It opens with a Cherokee youth bringing fire to his people. There are spectacular dances, including an Eagle Dance, and it brings a human face to an important and often-overlooked part of American history.
Management, including Tissue and Marion Waggoner, the director, cast a wide net for actors, but they start close to home.
“About 60 percent of the cast are local Cherokee,” Tissue said. “And the rest of the cast comes from all over. We start in December and cast through April.”
They go to the Unified Professional Theatre Auditions in Memphis, Tenn.; the Southeastern Theatre Conference, which has corporate offices in Greensboro; the Institute of Outdoor Theatre conference; Western Carolina University, and they accept video auditions.
As the public’s understanding of Native American history has changed, the Cherokee Historical Society’s script of “Unto These Hills” has changed as well. Hunter sold it outright to the Historical Society, so they have been free to make appropriate adaptations.
“The script had gotten dated. It was misogynistic, and the Native men spoke in third person like an old Western movie,” Tissue said. “The tribe asked that we fix that. In the 1980s and ’90s, we started making changes. Marion added some Cherokee language, and made it so it wasn’t so patronizing. We’ve had the current script for two or three years.”
They made changes in the cast too.
“At one point, it was white kids from Chapel Hill in orange paint,” Tissue said. “The performances were good, but it was just a little bit too close to black face.”
About 10 years ago, the Historical Society spent $3.8 million to improve seating and concessions in the amphitheater, which holds about 2,100.
When the sun goes down in the Smokies, the temperature drops fast. Bring a jacket — or better rain gear. I was lucky. It rained every day for a week before and after the Solstice but was clear that day.
There’s a lot to see in Cherokee, and hotel prices were more reasonable than I expected. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Oconaluftee Indian Village are obvious but well-executed attractions.
The Oconaluftee River flows through the little town. Picnic tables and shelters all along its green banks invite the visitor to while away a few hours just gazing at the mountains and the water.
Oh, and I hear there’s a casino there as well.