Some 25 years after Te Ata was named Oklahoma’s first cultural treasure, the legacy of the late actress and storyteller is being honored in a two-act play performed in Oklahoma City and Washington, D.C.
“Te Ata,” the story of the actress who gained international fame performing before royalty, presidents and school children, was presented June 14-17 at Oklahoma City University and will continue June 21-24. A touring production will run July 5-8 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
During a reception following the June 16 performance, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, Te Ata’s nephew, expressed his appreciation to the playwright, cast and crew for bringing her life story to the stage. He said that JudyLee Oliva, Tana Takes Horse and Nancy McDoniel did a great job in capturing the spirit of the late performer.
Cole also recalled one of his favorite memories of Te Ata. He said that when he was a child, he asked Te Ata how much Indian he was.
“She said, ‘Either you are Indian, or you are not. You are,’” Cole said.
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby also complimented the production.
“This play is a tribute to a role model who defied stereotypes,” Anoatubby said. “Te Ata’s life and legacy still have an impact in our culture today.”
Performances this summer are the fruition of a journey which spans two decades. It began when Oliva stumbled upon numerous files of Te Ata’s work in 1993 while she was researching Native theater and performance.
“She performed at the White House. She performed for the king and queen of England, but I had never heard of her,” Oliva said. “There were hundreds and hundreds of letters and brochures in the files. I felt like I had found gold.”
Oliva was finally able to meet Te Ata, who was in her 90s at the time.
“The moment I met her, I knew I needed to write a play about her,” Oliva said. “I was so taken by her. She was so powerful and beautiful. As I began to learn everything about her life story, I just knew there had to be a play.”
Oliva found two Chickasaw actresses to portray Te Ata as a young woman and as an elder.
Nancy McDoniel, a New York actress who has appeared in several episodes of “Law and Order” and in the movie “United 93,” will play the elder Te Ata.
“I think the message is — it’s about the unity in Te Ata’s life, the Indian culture and the white culture coming together, just the blending of everything in Te Ata’s life,” said McDoniel. “I would like to convey that Te Ata was a person who brought all of these things together. And, I believe that she was just trying to show the world ‘us,’ the Native American Indian. She was giving this little gift of our traditions to other people so that they can pass it on to others — and it can keep growing.”
Tana Takes Horse, a graduate of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, plays the young Te Ata. Born in the small town of Colbert and pursuing a theater career, she identifies closely with Te Ata.
“I was so surprised at how much our lives just went together,” said Takes Horse. “Her having a theater background — and me, also, doing the same thing, going to college and getting my degree.
“I find that to be very important as a performer — to understand your art. And she did that. She went to school and went to another school and finally, she went to New York City. And I feel that I’m kind of on that same path.”
Gov. Anoatubby said. “It is inspiring to see these three Chickasaw women bring Te Ata’s story to life. Her life’s work helped bridge the divide between diverse cultures. Today, this play continues her legacy of using artistic expression to change hearts and minds in a way that binds all people together.”
Completion of this play echoes one of Te Ata’s signature performances, according to Ms. Oliva.
“In the play, the character Te Ata says, ‘The last song is everything you add up to be.’ For me, my play ‘Te Ata’ is my last song, because it is the most important play that I will ever write,” she said. “I’ve seen over these last two decades how the play has created a special kind of spirit for everyone who has seen it or worked on it. I call it ‘Te Ata’s ribbon.’ It is as if her spirit has guided me to find the best way to write her story, and those who are involved in telling it are forever changed.”
Cutline: Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby presents Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry the “Bearer of the Morning” painting of Te Ata.
Left to Right: Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby, “Te Ata” cast member and OCU student Eryn LeCroy and OCU President Robert Henry.