NAWPA: Te Ata Synopsis

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Te Ata
by JudyLee Olivia

Old Te Ata: 90 year old Chickasaw Indian woman
Te Ata: Chickasaw Indian woman. Younger version of the above; age varies 15ish-40ish* Her English name is Mary Thompson. Tall, attractive, with long dark hair and eyes.
Miss Davis: 40 year old white woman, Te Ata’s teacher. Attractive, charismatic.
Dr. Clyde Fisher: 50 year old white man with shocking white hair. Te Ata’s husband, formal in manner, twinkling eyes.
Kuruks/Snake: Played by same actor, young Indian man. Tall, mischievous,
catching smile. Must be able to sing and play Indian drum and flute.
Margaret: 20ish and 30ish* white woman, friend of Te Ata’s. Adventurous, blond with beautiful blue eyes. Physically animated, must be able to play the violin.
Ataloa: 15ish, 20ish, and 30ish* Indian woman, Te Ata’s cousin. Must be able to sing.
Chorus: Comprised of 3 men and 3 women, all of different ethnic groups, including Indian. They should be various ages. They will play a variety of characters, from several cultures, not just native and enact various rituals and scenes in mime, dance, as well as serve in a more traditional way as supporting characters in certain scenes.
*These characters’ ages are suggestive only. They must give the essence of the age but not necessarily look much different as time changes.
The play travels back in time from the 1990’s to 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state. We see the play as Old Te Ata remembers it so that the chronology of events is not as important as the events themselves. The characters’ ages are approximate and are given only to help establish the relationships to Young Te Ata. Some characters do not age, as we move forward through time; others age only slightly and do so more by portrayal than by physicality. The play begins and ends in Spring. Each scene melts into the other. There should be no stop in the action except between the two acts.

Most of the action takes place on a bare stage. A sky cyc is necessary throughout to portray the Oklahoma sky and to view projections. In certain scenes, levels are necessary, such as in scene seven for the wedding. Always present is a large Wooden Indian which stands UR and a large tree stump which stands UL. This is an Indian’s version of a Wooden Indian, not a white man’s version, as it is not completely realistic. Both can “take stage” or assume a position of relative unimportance. Miss Davis’ classroom and the New York apartment roll on and off from DL to DR respectively. In the beginning we see only the blue expansive sky of Oklahoma, the Wooden Indian, and the tree stump.

Te Ata is a full length play with music, based on the real life story of Te Ata Fisher, a Chickasaw Indian actress from Oklahoma who performed a one person show for over seventy years, including presentations in the White House as guest of the Roosevelts and for the King and Queen of England. Her story has never been told.

Told through the eyes of Old Te Ata, we learn the story of a young Indian girl who was the first Indian to graduate from OCW – Oklahoma College for Women – with a degree in theatre. Old Te Ata walks out of the sky and speaks directly to the audience as she tells her life story and speaks poetically and profoundly of the people who influenced her – her teacher Miss Davis, her friend Margaret, and her husband, a white man, Dr. Clyde Fisher. Dr. Fisher is based on the real life husband of Te Ata, Dr. Clyde Fisher, who was the first curator of the New York Hayden Planetarium.

As Old Te Ata performs and tells of her life’s journey we meet these characters and others. We move in and out of reality as Old Te Ata remembers both her fear of the white culture and her ultimate fulfillment when she performed. Young Te ATa is portrayed by a separate actress. In a few instances we see both Old and Young Te Ata perform together – one in real time, one in memory.

The journey is enacted in a variety of ways. We see a stylized version of the Indian Corn Ceremony via the “Ribbon of Corn” Dance narrated by Old Te Ata. We meet Margaret, Te Ata’s life long friend, who plays the violin and is a talent in her own right. We see performances in the Chautauqua Circuit, including the delightful “Miss Chamberlaine’s Bird REnditions” and watch as Young Te Ata “walks” from her culture to that of the urban, white society as depicted in the “False Face Society Dance.” The conflict is apparent throughout. Te Ata is torn between two cultures. However, with the love and tutelage of her husband, she reconciles her internal worries by choosing to forsake Broadway and perform her INdian legends all over the world to educate people about her culture. Dr. Fisher and Te Ata’s unique life creates a beautiful love story, depicted in several scenes, including a scene where the stage is split and both are “lecturing” under the stars — she with her INdian stories; he with his scientific explanations and his telescope. As they mime the action, we hear the violin and native flute duet “Coming Together.” “Clyde’s Love Song” reflects their love as Dr. Fisher “stops time” to dance under the stars as the chorus joins them in song and dance.

The climax of the play comes in scene nine, where the chorus is dressed as Loon birds and Te Ata, who has not resolved herself with nature and her universe, dances with them until they become one. Old Te Ata sings to her “Feathers Gone in Wind,” which reminds Young Te Ata of her calling and her duty to both cultures. The play concludes once Old Te Ata and Young Te Ata become one in the “Dance of Youth and Age.” In the final song, “Gone Away People,” the play has come full circle after embracing both the simplicity of the Native culture, in its poetry, legends, and music, while also reflecting its theatricality in its visions of the world.

Synopsis written by the author.