Some 25 years after Te Ata was named Oklahoma’s first cultural treasure, the legacy of the late actress and storyteller will be 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, will be presented June 14-17 and 21-24, at Oklahoma City University and a touring production July 5-8, at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
“Te Ata once wrote that ‘art binds all people together, and her career of more than 50 years bears testimony to that noble idea,” said Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby.
President Franklin Roosevelt asked Te Ata to perform for English monarchs King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during a 1939 state visit which included serious discussions of the political and military situation in Europe.
“Her life’s work helped bridge the divide between diverse cultures,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “Today, she stands as a shining example of how artistic expression can change hearts and minds in a way that binds all people together.”
Performances this summer are the fruition of a journey which spans two decades.
It began when JudyLee Oliva stumbled upon numerous files of Te Ata’s work in 1993 while she was researching Native theatre and Native performance.
“She performed at the White House, she performed for the King and Queen of England, but I had never heard of her,” she said. “There were hundreds and hundreds of letter and brochures in the files. I felt like I had found gold.
“I spent one summer reading 300 letters the family had -- just reading letters, reading letters, beautifully written letters. She would use the moons -- she would say it’s the 16th sun of the wild rose moon 1933. That’s poetry right there, in fact, I even took all the headings of the letters and dates and made sure they’re in the play exactly the way she said them.”
Ms. 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. 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 play.”
After years of work, Ms. Oliva staged a world premiere of “Te Ata” at the University of Arts and Sciences Oklahoma. But Ms. Oliva was not satisfied that the play met the high standards established by Te Ata’s incredible career.
“Something was just not quite right about the play,” said Oliva. “The music created for the play wasn’t grounded enough in Native tradition. The sound of the Native flute was not present enough. And more were drums were needed.”
Oliva set out to find a new composer to create all new music just done on Native flute and Drums. She worked with award-winning flute player and composer Jan Seiden for two years to create a new musical score.
She also found two Chickasaw actresses to portray Te Ata as a young lady 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 Ms 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, Okla. and pursuing a theater career, she identifies closely with Te Ata.
“I was so surprised at how much our lives just went together,” said Ms. Takes Horse. “Her having a theatre 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.”
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,” said Ms. Oliva. “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.”