Curtains rise for Cherokee musical "Nanyehi" at Hard Rock Live

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TULSA – “Nanyehi — The Story of Nancy Ward,” the Cherokee musical co-written by Bartlesville native Becky Hobbs, returns to Tulsa on Oct. 29-30 for performances at Hard Rock Live at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. 

© Courtesy/Cherokee Nation ‘Nanyehi’ Cherokee musical set for Hard Rock Live Oct. 29-30.

The two-act musical tells the story of Nanyehi (1738-1822) who is revered as one of the most influential women in Cherokee Nation history. Nanyehi, who took the name of Nancy Ward later in her life, was born in Chota, a Cherokee town in what is now eastern Tennessee. She was respected as both a warrior in the campaign against the Creek Nation and a peacemaker during the American Revolution. As a Beloved Woman of the Cherokee, she led the Women’s Council and was the only woman with a vote and a seat on the Cherokee General Council.  

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Reprising the title role of Nanyehi will be New York-based actress Michelle Honaker. While Nanyehi worked for peace with the British colonists, her cousin Dragging Canoe, who will be played by Tahlequah native and Tulsa musician Travis Fite, wanted to drive them out. 

“I mean we can’t find anyone else to fill his moccasins,” music director Becky Hobbs said to the E-E. “Dragging Canoe was supposedly very tall, almost 7 feet. Travis is way up there, at least probably 6’5” and he just gets out there and rocks it.”  

© Courtesy/nanyehi.com Becky Hobbs

Hobbs, who co-wrote the musical with director Nick Sweet, said they have a lot of great singers with many in the cast hailing from Muskogee including Andy Sanchez, who plays Chief Attakullakulla, Nanyehi’s uncle. The chief’s belief that the best chance for the survival of the Cherokee was to co-exist peacefully with the colonists is said to have greatly influenced Nanyehi.  

And this year’s special guest star is Winnie Guess Perdue, a Cherokee citizen and direct descendant of Sequoyah, who will be playing the elder Nanyehi. Perdue had the lead in the “Nanyehi” short film as well as a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

With storytelling being one of the cornerstones of Native culture, Perdue said that she is grateful to have the opportunity to help tell the story of Nanyehi and her message of peace.  

“Her strength, wisdom and resilience are all still relevant lessons for us today,” Perdue said. 

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Hobbs said that Perdue broke the glass ceiling years ago as a fancy dancer which was once unacceptable for women to do. She even performed on the Ed Sullivan stage. 

Hobbs, herself, is a Nashville-based, recording/performing artist, a Bartlesville native and Cherokee citizen as well as the 5th-great granddaughter of Nancy Ward. Alabama, George Jones, Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris and many other top acts have recorded Hobbs’ songs, but she considers “Nanyehi” the biggest thrill of her life. 

“I have been driven by something so much bigger than I am to tell this story,” Hobbs said. “I’ve done a lot of praying that I’m following her wishes in telling her story. Her story is very important in today’s world because we’ve got to stop killing each other, we all share the same planet.” 

Hobbs said her mother told her the stories of Nanyehi – how she joined her husband Kingfisher in the 1755 Battle of Taliwa and how she would chew his lead bullets to make them more deadly. When Kingfisher was killed, Nanyehi took his rifle and led the Cherokees to victory and was honored as a “war woman.” 

Nanyehi is a powerful example of female leadership at a time of white male domination, while Cherokee matrilineal society at the time allowed women to vote and hold public office. She felt that women on both sides played a critical role in ending the fighting between Native people and white settlers.  

She memorably told U.S. treaty commissioners in a speech, “Let your women’s sons be ours; our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words.” 

Hobbs said that no one knows more about Nancy Ward and Cherokee history than David Hampton, president of the Association of the Descendants of Nancy Ward. Through his research, Hampton found out that quite a few of the cast members are related to Nancy Ward. 

“He is our go-to for all things Cherokee,” Hobbs said. “And he comes to our rehearsal every night.” 

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Writing songs for “Nanyehi” came easy for Hobbs who was planning to produce a tribute album in 1993. “Pale Moon,” “Let There Be Peace” and “By the Fire” came out of that effort before she set it aside to keep up with her country music career. But then in 2007, after performing in her hometown Bartlesville during the Oklahoma Centennial celebration, she met Nick Sweet. Having directed and acted in the Trail of Tears production in Tahlequah, he knew who Nancy Ward was, which was a sweet surprise to Hobbs.   

“I just looked at him and said ‘We should write a musical’ and a year later we embarked on it,” Hobbs said. 

The musical is backed by a live orchestra that includes five stellar Tulsa musicians along with Hobbs as first keys and her husband and guitarist Duane Sciacqua, who played with the Eagles’ Glenn Frey on the road for 16 years, as conductor. Sciacqua will be creating wild sounds of an ethereal flute on a synthesized guitar.  

Though Nancy Ward died before the heartbreak and trauma that came with the Trail of Tears in 1838, Hobbs said she saw it coming as the last act in the musical reflects. In 1817, at nearly 80 years of age, she sent her son to read a statement to the National Council imploring them to hold on to what remained of the Cherokee lands. They had done enough, Hobbs said. They were willing to share their land but not give it away. 

Hobbs said the musical honors the historical events in Nancy Ward’s life and that they have tried to keep them as true to the time-frame as possible. But there are also lighter moments along with a little romance, a stickball game, peace and war songs. 

“It’s not just a history lesson, it’s entertainment as well,” Hobbs said. 

Cherokee words flow throughout the songs and the script; “Stickball Song” is all in Cherokee. Executive producer David Webb said that many of those attending the “Nanyehi” productions speak Cherokee so the cast understands the importance of getting it right. 

“The people in the audience know Cherokee better than many of our cast,” he said. 

The performance at Hard Rock Live will be the 11th production for “Nanyehi.” It has been presented six times in Oklahoma, twice in Tennessee with single shows in Georgia and Texas. While the musical could be seen as a requirement for Cherokee citizens, Hobbs is quick to add that it’s meaningful for not only Cherokees but every American, and is fascinating to people throughout the world. 

“We want to take this musical to the world stage,” she said. 

Tickets are on sale now. Cost is $15 and $10 for Cherokee Nation citizens and children 12 and under. Call the box office at 918-384-ROCK or go to the entertainment section at hardrockcasinotulsa.com. 

This article originally appeared on Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise: Curtains rise for Cherokee musical “Nanyehi” at Hard Rock Live

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