'And So We Walked' will make its regional debut this weekend at the Momentary in Bentonville.
DeLanna Studi was always been curious about the lives of her Cherokee ancestors, but her parents didn’t discuss life before the Trail of Tears because “it was too traumatic for them.” Still, questions about their history, her history, lingered in the back of her mind.
“It was like a missing part of my DNA was knowing where I came from and the story behind my people,” she says.
To learn more, Studi embarked on a six-week, 900-mile journey with her father in 2015, retracing the steps of their Cherokee ancestors from North Carolina to Oklahoma. The experience informed the creation of And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears. The one-woman production will have its regional premiere this weekend at the Momentary in Bentonville.
“It’s a homecoming and it’s the first time that my family, like all of my family, will be able to come see the show, which is very exciting,” she says.
Studi grew up in a small Oklahoma town where she felt like her only option as a woman was to become a teacher, nurse or housewife. Those careers weren’t the right fit for Studi, who instead felt called to a creative career, something she didn’t have a lot of exposure to as a child.
“No one ever came to my school to tell me that my culture was valid and that my stories mattered,” she says.
Studi discovered acting, but also “did the practical thing” and went to school for architecture and engineering. She owned a tool company until a few years ago, but that wasn’t her passion and her father always taught her to try and get through life “without having too many what ifs.”
“This was a big what if for me, what if i tried this,” Studi says. “I don’t want to be 70 looking back and wondering what if I would have done that. And so instead I did try it and it worked out for me.”
Today she has more than 25 years of experience as a storyteller, educator and activist. The playwright and performer has acted in theatre, television and film productions, and currently serves as the artistic director for Native Voices at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
Studi was also recently named a United States Artists Fellow. The 63 artists are receiving unrestricted $50,000 cash rewards, which will allow Studi to take time to finish writing two more plays. There’s also discussion of turning And So We Walked into a short documentary film and the award could support that project.
A documentarian accompanied Studi and her father as they explored the Trail of Tears. They worked in partnership with dozens of community organizations to host workshops and storytelling circles at significant sites along the trail. The Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and other cultural partners also helped support the project, which debuted on stage in 2016. The production has been performed throughout the United States and in Tunisia.
Walking where her ancestors once walked during their forced removal from their homelands was an emotional experience for Studi. She was “devastated by the loss,” but the journey also provided an opportunity to see a different side of her father.
At the age of nine, Studi’s father was removed from his home and forcibly taken to an American Indian boarding school designed to “kill the Indian and save the man,” she says. The school forced native children to assimilate and the experience hardened her father. On the trail, he became less guarded and Studi says it was amazing to see him come alive.
“The highlight of the trip was my father getting to be his authentic self and me getting to see who he really was because if you think about it, my father’s first language is Cherokee,” she says. “My first language is English, so for the history of my life, my father’s been code switching with me. So for me, I got to see what he was like before he was nine. It was beautiful.”
The Cherokee Nation bought the boarding school her father attended and converted it into an immersion school where children can learn the history and language of the Cherokee people, as well as skills like basketry and weaving. This is just one example of how Cherokees have overcome some of the suffering they’ve endured, Studi says.
“The Trail of Tears is pain and trauma, but it’s also hope and resilience,” she says. “We are still here. We are thriving.”
Studi will share a piece of her ancestors’ history through her work And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears Feb. 18-20 at the Momentary in Bentonville. Sunday’s show is sold out, but tickets are still available for Friday and Saturday’s performances. More information can be found at www.themomentary.org.