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Cherokee on stage: WCU student project depicts Cherokee lore theatrically

Western Carolina University students are filming the last scenes from the Theatre in Education Company’s performance of “Young Cherokee,” concluding a year-long theatre initiative that has captured attention at national conferences and connected university students with the Cherokee people.

Glenda Hensley and Claire Eye, visiting assistant professors in the department of communication, theatre and dance, designed the program so Western students could create and perform quality theatrical productions that also are educationally relevant. To explore diversity and help promote cultural understanding, WCU students in the theatre program created workshops for middle school students and a play for elementary school students on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“Cherokee is 20 minutes away, and so few of us take the opportunity to learn about that culture that we are connected to,” Eye said. “We hoped it would allow us to pass on to students what we learned.”

As the theatre group designed costumes and rehearsed Kathryn Schultz Miller’s play “Young Cherokee,” Western students worked with the WCU-Cherokee Center, its director Roseanna Belt, community elders and artists such as Davy Arch, who produced hand-carved masks for the show. Western students adapted the script, for instance, to change a crawfish to a water beetle to better reflect Cherokee stories of this region, said Sara Dodson, a senior theatre student and the play’s director.

“We learned so much about the Cherokee because we wanted to stay as true to the story as possible,” said Dodson, who plans to return to her home state of Florida after graduation to work with a drama ministry.

In the play, a young Cherokee boy named Chosen One battles an Underwater Panther and a Thunderbird as he tries to restore power to the sun and fire. He overcomes fear, shows love for all things on earth and glimpses the greatest enemy of the Cherokee culture – the approach of people with vastly different beliefs. The play was performed for elementary school audiences this spring, is now being filmed and will have an encore performance this fall.

The program’s students and directors have presented their experiences at national conferences to convey how Theatre in Education has helped link college students with younger people in the community and create opportunities to experience literature, theatre, art and music. Another presentation about the program will be delivered this summer at the American Alliance of Theater Educators conference.

“Weaving cultural and environmental literacy and service learning into arts-based learning strategies creates so many possibilities for collaborative learning and teaching designs,” Hensley said. “Our goal is to create a Theatre in Education program that will serve as a model for both artistic excellence and significant learning.”

Eye said with so many positive results, they do not intend for this to be a one-time project.

“The whole process of approaching the Cherokee Center and asking for their help in learning myths, legends and culture opened their hearts to us, and that has been powerful,” she said. “We intend to foster the relationships we’ve been able to establish through this program, toward a long-term collaboration that will benefit everyone.”

For more information, contact Glenda Hensley at 828.227.2469 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Claire Eye at 828.227.3961 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..