- By Elyse Wild
A citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Chaudhuri was one of the hundreds of thousands of Native American children forcibly removed from their homes and placed into boarding schools designed to strip them of their Indigenous language, traditions and culture in the name of assimilation. Time after time, the ten-year-old was chased by dogs, captured, humiliated, beaten, and isolated by the boarding school teachers and faculty, a testament to the unique cruelty that has come to define the boarding school era.
But Chaudhuri persisted, and on her eighth attempt, she evaded capture and ran 60 miles on foot to escape and forge a path into the activism that would come to define her life.
Chaudhuri's astonishing escape is portrayed on stage in On the Far End, a new one-woman play written and performed by esteemed Native playwright — and Chaudhuri's daughter-in-law — Mary Kathryn Nagel, now playing at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland.
The play begins when Chaudhuri is seven-years-old living on the Muscogee Creek Nation Reservation, spanning 52 years of her life and career fighting for Native American rights, raising children and struggling with addiction.
Nagel (Cherokee Nation) — a tribal sovereignty attorney and playwright with more than a dozen works to her name — never met Chaudhuri, who died in 1997, but she was inspired to bring her life to the stage in 2020.
"My father-in-law, Jean's husband, died in 2020," Nagel said. "As my husband and I were going through his things, all of Jean's stuff was still there at the house."
Nagel spent months sifting through the artifacts of Chaudhuri's life: newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, journals, photographs, handwritten letters to Congress and scripts for speeches she gave at rallies. What emerged was the story of a woman whose family history traces back to the Trail of Tears who escaped the fate decided for her and grew to be a champion for Native American rights.
"It was really moving to find all these things from her life," Nagel said. "She was an incredible writer and speaker and mother and auntie. It really felt like her story needed to be told."
At the outset, Nagel intended "On the Far End" to be a multiple-actor show but found Chaudhuri's voice to be a powerful draw on its own.
"It really felt like it needed to be her telling her story," Nagel said. "And her voice was so powerful, she was such a storyteller, that doing it in her voice seemed like the right thing to do."
On the Far End director Margot Bordelon said the play's one-woman format caught her attention.
"I didn't know when I read it that it was based on a real person," Borderlon said. "At first, I thought it was a piece born of Mary Kathryn's imagination. Then I started googling and I said, 'Oh my god, this is based on this real, incredible woman.'"
Bordleron describes feeling captivated by Chaudhuri's innate determination, illustrated by the scene in which she flees the boarding school and escapes the fate that befell so many of her peers.
"That a ten-year-old had the energy and fortitude and will to do that — that is a real story," Bordleron said. "She's just such an incredible fighter. I recognized that spirit in her, and I fell in love."
Chaudhuri's accomplishments were many: She served as the Executive Director of the Tucson Indian Center and Director of the Traditional Indian Alliance; founded the first off-reservation Indian Health clinic in Tucson; founded the Arizona Indian Women in Progress; and founded the Native American Heritage Preservation Coalition. Nagel says that Chaudhuri was ahead of her time, speaking out on issues impacting Indian Country decades before they drew national attention.
"She was speaking out about mascots in the 60s," Nagel said. "She was so ahead of her time."
Nagel inhabits 17 characters during the 90-minute play, at times portraying both the persecuted and the persecutors in the same scene as characters dialogue with each other.
"It takes a lot of energy," Nagel said. "You have to make sure you get enough sleep and eat right; it's like being an athlete in many ways. It also takes a lot to get the emotions of every character in order."
Nagel hopes the play brightens the spotlight on Native women less frequently acknowledged for their contributions to history and culture. And, she says, she hopes audience members leave inspired by one Native woman who contained multitudes.
"I hope they leave inspired by her life," Nagel said. "She is someone who accomplished so much, but she also struggled. She struggled with substance abuse at one point, she had work/life balance issues, and she was a mother. You can be flawed and can be a good person and achieve a lot, like she did."
On the Far End is showing at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, until May 7. Click here for ticket information.
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