Recovering a Cherokee Dramatic Tradition

Osiyo TV features Professsor Kirby Brown in a segment on Cherokee playwright and screenwriter Lynn Riggs.

Professor Kirby Brown was recently featured in a segment of Cherokee Almanac, a production of Osiyo TV, the official video publishing arm of the Cherokee Nation. The segment focused on the life, writing, and legacy of Lynn Riggs, a prolific and well-regarded Cherokee poet, playwright, screenwriter, and drama theorist.

While Riggs is best known for Green Grow the Lilacs (1930), the play that inspired the iconic musical Oklahoma, Dr. Brown demonstrates that Riggs was a key player in the American drama scene from the beginning of his career in the mid-1920s until his untimely death in 1954. Riggs was tightly associated with some of the most influential figures of American modernism, drama, and popular culture production, sharing bills with Eugene O'Neill and George Bernard Shaw at the Provincetown Players and Hedgerow Theater, and twice finishing as a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

Equally important, Dr. Brown points out, is that Riggs used plays like The Cherokee Night (1936) to give an "alternate picture of Cherokee nationhood [and] Oklahoma statehood, focusing on the impacts to Cherokee families." In this sense, he "[challenged] audiences to come to terms with their own assumptions about what they project onto the racial dynamics of this period," urging consideration about "what it means to be Cherokee in that moment." Perhaps the greatest part of Riggs's legacy, Dr. Brown argues, is that the Cherokee Nation has a dramatic tradition: "We have a [wider] literary tradition of which he is a part, but we also have a tradition of drama - of stage drama." Riggs's works confront "all of the same issues regarding family and community, all these things that we see in contemporary native drama and with contemporary Cherokee playwrights."

This interview represents just some of Dr. Brown's work on Cherokee literature and culture. His recently published Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Cherokee Literature, 1907-1970 (2018) examines the complicated ways in which Cherokee artists reimagined and bore witness to Cherokee nationhood in the absence of a functioning Cherokee state. Stoking the Fire features a chapter on the modernist aesthetics of Riggs's The Cherokee Night.

Please click here to open Osiyo TV's wonderful segment on Riggs's artistic legacy in a new tab and to watch other features in the Cherokee Almanac series.

Many thanks go to Osiyo TV for the images of Lynn Riggs featured here and on our homepage.