Review | Native American activist takes the spotlight in ‘On the Far End’


A distraught little girl cutting off her hair after the death of her sister. A slap delivered at an abusive boarding school. A Native American song ringing out impromptu at the U.S. Supreme Court. Such vivid moments pull us into Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “On the Far End,” the inspiring true story of Muscogee leader Jean Chaudhuri.

Chaudhuri (1937-1997) was an activist who won victories for Native Americans in areas including health care and heritage preservation. She was also the mother-in-law of playwright Nagle, who channels Chaudhuri and other characters in this Round House Theatre world premiere.

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Directed by Margot Bordelon, and part of Round House’s second National Capital New Play Festival, the 90-minute solo piece unfurls in methodical but graceful fashion on Paige Hathaway’s set, whose sturdy desk and natural elements — a tree, grasses — echo both the protagonist’s indefatigable work ethic and the theme of connection to land and place.

Moving around this environment with stately posture, Nagle’s Jean looks back on her life’s personal and professional turning points, including her marriage to Bengali scholar Joyotpaul Chaudhuri and the time she persuaded Arizona Sen. John McCain to oppose a corporation’s plans to develop a site steeped in Native history.

Jean’s account aches with awareness of the federal government’s centuries-long betrayal and mistreatment of Native Americans, and she copes regularly with bigotry. In one early scene, her grandfather recalls surviving the Trail of Tears. Later, Jean is chased by dogs when she repeatedly runs away from one of the federal boarding schools that aimed to erase Native American identity and culture.

The play contains humor, too, as when Jean’s 7-year-old son, obsessed with the Beatles, speculates that he and his younger brother might be mistaken for two of the Fab Four.

And happy memories register: A corn-husk doll cherished in childhood. The award for public service Jean receives in a ceremony at the Supreme Court.

That ceremony stands out, given the play’s title, borrowed from the 2020 Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which held that a large part of the state remained a Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation. “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” observed Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, writing for the majority.

Nagle, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is keenly attuned to the significance of such rulings: In addition to being a playwright, she is a lawyer whose work focuses on issues around tribal sovereignty. Her play “Sovereignty,” at Arena Stage in 2018, also touched on legal matters.

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In her new play, she displays yet another talent — acting — having stepped in after the original cast member withdrew from the production. A poised and appealing performer, Nagle calibrates the story’s tonal shifts capably, while also capturing Jean’s energy and acing the humor. She doesn’t always succeed, however, in conveying a sense of spontaneity.

Nagle the writer lands more wins here, especially with her resonant contextualizing of her topic. Seen through the lens of “On the Far End,” Chaudhuri’s achievements cast light on centuries of Native American experience and resilience.

On the Far End, by Mary Kathryn Nagle. Directed by Margot Bordelon; costume design, Raphael Regan; lighting, Emma Deane; sound, Emily Duncan Wilson. About 90 minutes. Part of the National Capital New Play Festival. Through May 7 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100.


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