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Outdoor Theater In Oklahoma

August 17, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Visiting Oklahoma this summer?

If so, you will be missing a good bet if you fail to take in one or both of the state's two outdoor productions--"Trail of Tears" here in Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation, and "Oklahoma!" in Tulsa.

This is the 17th summer the Cherokee Nation has presented the heart-wrenching, historic drama of the 1,000-mile forced resettlement march of 16,000 Cherokees from the Carolinas to Oklahoma's Indian Territory in 1838.

More than 4,000 men, women and children perished from disease, hunger and the elements on the long, harsh trek. Cherokees were stripped of their traditional lands and forced at gunpoint to leave their homes by soldiers of Gen. Winfield Scott's army.

James Vance's historic dramatization is being performed nightly except Sundays through next Saturday at the Tsa-La-Gi theater at the tribe's National Heritage Center.

Seventy miles to the northwest, one of the nation's most popular musicals ever, "Oklahoma!," is being presented outdoors under the stars as it has each summer since 1976 at Discoveryland in Tulsa, also through next Saturday.

"Where better to see 'Oklahoma!' than in Oklahoma and performed by Oklahomans, making Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical come alive more than it is possible to do in any other place," insists Duane Jeffers, 34, who has played the lead role of Curly for the last nine summers. (The production has been proclaimed the national home of "Oklahoma!" by Richard Rodgers.)

Perhaps the most moving and spectacular of any of the various Indian outdoor theatrical productions in America each summer is "Trail of Tears." It is fitting that Oklahoma have the best of Indian theater since the state's name means Red People in Choctaw and, with 160,000 Indians, it has the highest Native American population in the country.

Cherokees, with 60,000 members in Oklahoma and 8,500 in North Carolina, are the nation's second largest tribe next to the Navajos.

Many outdoor dramas emphasize pageantry at the expense of drama, but not "Trail of Tears." At the crux of the dramatization is the portrayal of suffering endured, reenacting the long march with such incisive scenes as the weary, sick families at the end of the day gathered around cliff-sheltered campfires on stage.

Anthropologist Duane King, 38, who has lived and worked with the Cherokees for the last 10 years as director of the Cherokee National Historical Society, is current producer of the play. "Why the Cherokees decided to do this is because the subject matter deals with a part of American history too few people know," he explains.

"Each night I relive the long, difficult walk made by my great-great-grandparents who survived the trail of tears," says Roberta Worthman, 67, who has played the part of a villager for 12 years. Her granddaughter, Laurel Mehaney, 9, is also in the play.

Large numbers of Indians are in the 1,800-seat amphitheater every night, coming not only from local communities but from tribes around the country to see the dramatization of America's Indian exodus.

A busload of 36 people on a 26-day coast-to-coast trip out of Syracuse, N.Y., spent its third night on the road in Tulsa seeing "Oklahoma!" Many on chartered bus vacations will long remember the highlight of their trip, the night in Tulsa seeing Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic, which first opened on Broadway in 1943.

For Tulsans and other Oklahomans, "Oklahoma!" is one of the most popular places to take visiting relatives and friends. Many of the locals see the play several times during the summer as they entertain guests.

This professional performance is certainly reasonable enough, with tickets for the 2,000-seat amphitheater costing only $7.50 (seats at "Trail of Tears" are $7 and $8). Tradition here is to enjoy the Western-style barbecue and fixin's in the cool shade of blackjack oaks on the theater grounds before the performance. The meal costs $5.75.

There is an an enormous outdoor stage with Aunt Eller's yellow house, a big barn, Jud's shanty, two dirt roads and a bridge over a stream. Cowboys and cowgirls gallop across the stage on horseback, or ride in buckboard wagons and the surrey with the fringe on top.

The songs that have enchanted millions of Americans the last 42 years--"Oklahoma!" "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin', " "Kansas City," "People Will Say We're in Love," "Surrey With the Fringe on Top"--delight all playgoers at Discoveryland.

And there's more music than that: A serenade of insects, cicadas, crickets and locusts joined by tree frogs add to the magic of the evening.

"The horses, wagons, the natural setting--there's so much more we can do with this staging than inside a theater," muses Richard Sutliff, 36, playing Jud for the seventh summer. Jill Elmore Patton, 29, Miss Oklahoma in the 1980 Miss America pageant, is in her second year as Laurey. Bennie Lee McGowan is in her fifth year as Aunt Eller.

If it rains, it's like baseball: Sit it out and hope for the best, with sometimes as much as 1 1/2 hours' delay, or your money back or tickets to later performances.

Ed and Peggy Kitchens came up from Shreveport, La., especially to see the play with their Tulsa friends, Jewell and Norlynne Wood. Kitchens and Wood were in the Army together at De Paul University in Chicago in 1943 when they and their brides (the same two women) saw "Oklahoma!" the first time.

Salvation Army ministers Don Sather, 48, and his wife, Esther, from San Pedro, Calif., are here. "Don asked me to marry him when Shirley Jones was singing 'People Will Say We're in Love,' when we saw the movie at Mann's Chinese several years ago," confides Esther.

Marvin Snavely, 49, a mail carrier, and his wife, Ellen, taped the entire performance "so we can listen to it and sing along as we drive back to our home in Big Rapids, Mich.," says Snavely.

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