HARTFORD — HartBeat Ensemble announces the release of a 5-part radio drama, “Up and Down the River,” co-written by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel and Madeline Sayet, who also directs. The five stories speak to the struggles of Mohegan leaders from the 16th through 20th centuries, along the river the tribe calls home. Each story offers a glimpse into a way of seeing the world, a time in history, and the sacrifices all Mohegans had to make to preserve the future of the Mohegan nation. All five episodes of Up and Down the River now available to stream for free via www.HartBeatEnsemble.org, according to an email from the ensemble.
Playwright Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, Medicine Woman and tribal historian for the Mohegan Tribal Nation, states, “As we reflect on the four centuries since the Mayflower sailed to Turtle Island in 1620, we honor the ancestors who made the difficult choices that enabled our Mohegan people other Natives to survive to see this day. We also wish our world good health and look forward to sharing the many stories we all have yet to tell.”
Madeline Sayet, who is Zobel’s cowriter and daughter, continues, “”I grew up in a home where my mother would offer Mohegan history pop quizzes at the dinner table, but the experience of creating these plays with her was truly unique. Never before had we had to truly sit down and think about these powerful ancestors as characters, as people, with their own unique thoughts and opinions, really examining why they may have made the difficult choices they did for our people. These aren’t stories about history, they’re about our family, our nation, and the ongoing acts of resistance necessary to survive.”
Reflecting the importance of indigenous populations telling their own stories, the cast and creative team are comprised almost entirely of artists who are citizens of sovereign native nations. Joining Melissa Tantauidgeon Zobel and Madeline Sayet (both of the Mohegan Tribal Nation) are sound designer Rory Stitt (Tlingit) and stage manager Amanda Luke (Cherokee/Choctaw). The cast includes Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum (Mohegan), Margaret Bruchac (Abenaki), David Uncas Sayet (Mohegan), Kenny Ramos (Kumeyaay), Miles Roe (Shinnecock), Ed Littlefield (Tlingit), Frank Kaash Katasse (Tlingit), Madeline Sayet (Mohegan), Randy Zobel, Erin Tripp (Tlingit), and Madeleine Hutchins (Mohegan).
“Up and Down the River” is not only a history of incidents in the lives of pivotal Mohegans, it is also illuminates the challenging differences and interactions between native and colonizing populations. When English colonists arrived in the Mohegan homeland on the Massapequotuck River (now called the Thames) four centuries ago, cultures clashed due to Mohegan beliefs in a many-spirited religion, matriarchal leadership, extended kinship, and the animacy of sacred objects, landforms and weather beings.
The stories collected in “Up and Down the River” span centuries — from 1598 to 1931 — of the Mohegan Tribal Nation’s history. The first episode begins with Mohegan Sachem (Head Chief) Uncas reflecting on his turbulent life and difficult choices. The second episode follows the cost of Reverend Samson Occom’s pivotal role in the founding of Dartmouth College. The third episode chronicles the painful and contentious family history of Samuel and Mary Ashbow who lost three of their children during the war of American Independence.
The fourth episode documents the founding of the Mohegan Church in order for the indigenous to appear Christianized (i.e. “civilized”) and avoid tribal relocation West, under Andrew Jackson’s Federal Indian Removal policy. The final episode details the creation and near destruction of Tantaquidgeon Lodge, the structure that today is now the oldest Native-run museum in the U.S.
HartBeat Ensemble Artistic Director Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. states, “When Melissa, Madeline and I first spoke about collaborating during this moment of trauma, we interrogated how our expertise in theater could be a part of healing or self-care for our constituents. While video online content can be great (and HartBeat has done a good deal of that the past few months), it has become clear that the audio format comes closest to both the actual experience of theater and the kind healing activity that one can participate in during self-care. And while we despair, and sometimes wallow in our collective “sacrifices” during this COVID-19 moment, I think it imperative to contemplate the extraordinary sacrifice Natives have continuously made for hundreds of years across this stolen land through these dramatized stories of Mohegan perseverance.”
Zobel grew up in Mohegan, Connecticut, where she was trained in tribal oral tradition, traditional lifeways, and spiritual beliefs by her great-aunt and great uncle, Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon and Chief Harold Tantaquidgeon. From a young age, she gave tours at the family’s Tantaquidgeon Museum (now owned and operated by the Mohegan Tribe). Melissa earned a B.S.F.S. in history/diplomacy from Georgetown University, an M.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.F.A. from Fairfield University in creative writing. As a young adult, she worked as Mohegan Federal Recognition Coordinator, researching and organizing her tribe’s successful bid for federal acknowledgment. She was appointed Tribal Historian in 1991 and Medicine Woman in 2008. This year, she was a finalist in Eugene O’Neill Theatre’s National Playwright’s Conference for her play “Flying Bird’s Diary.” That play was also a selection for the Oklahoma Indigenous Theatre’s 2020 New Native Play Festival, a finalist for Storyline’s Vitruvian Award, and a winner in the New York Screenplay Contest’s stage play category. She has also written for film, receiving an Emmy for her work on the movie, “The Mark of Uncas,” as well as numerous screenwriting awards. Tantaquidgeon Zobel’s books, include the biography “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon” and the mystery “Wabanaki Blues.” Her goal is to share the enduring traditions, humor, challenges, joys, and spirit of historic and contemporary Native New England.
Sayet is a citizen of the Mohegan Tribe and the executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. For her work as a director, writer, and performer she has been honored as a Forbes 30 Under 30 in Hollywood & Entertainment, TED Fellow, MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, National Directing Fellow, Drama League Director-In-Residence, NCAIED Native American 40 Under 40, and a recipient of The White House Champion of Change Award from former President Barack Obama. She is known throughout the field for her work promoting indigenous voices and decolonizing systems. She recently premiered here solo performance piece “Where We Belong” at Shakespeare’s Globe and Richmix in London, and it will be a part of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s coming season. Recent directing work includes: “Staged at Home: a Virtual Benefit Concert” (Long Wharf Theatre), “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (South Dakota Shakespeare), “Henry IV” (Connecticut Repertory Theatre), “Whale Song” (Perseverance Theatre), “She Kills Monsters” (Connecticut Repertory Theatre), “As You Like It” (Delaware Shakespeare), “The Winter’s Tale” (Amerinda/HERE Arts), “Poppea” (Krannert Center, Illinois), “The Magic Flute” (Glimmerglass), “Macbeth” (NYC Parks), and “Miss Lead” (59e59). Follow her at www.madelinesayet.com.