(Above: Mary Kathryn Nagle , a playwright in The Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group)
By Catherine Mirra
As a young girl growing up in Oklahoma City, Mary Kathryn Nagle loved to write stories. During her undergrad years at Georgetown University, she studied theater and enjoyed writing for the stage. When it came to her career, however, she always envisioned attending law school and pursuing a career as a lawyer. Mary Kathryn is a descendant of John Ridge of the Cherokee Nation, one of the first Native attorneys in the history of the United States, and has a passion for Native law, Federal Indian law, and Native issues.
“The idea of making it as a lawyer was a lot easier to get my head around than making it as a playwright,” Mary Kathryn, now a lawyer, tells me from her office in Manhattan. “Being a playwright was such a pie-in-the-sky dream that was never going to happen.”
As it turns out, Mary Kathryn was able to have her pie and eat it, too. She continued writing throughout her time at law school, and eventually earned a spot in The Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group, an initiative that works closely with a diverse group of aspiring playwrights in the early stages of their career, providing them with key support and necessary resources. The Time Warner Foundation, whose mission is to discover, nurture, and celebrate the next generation of storytellers, is the founding sponsor of the Emerging Writers Group at The Public Theater.
After graduating law school, Mary Kathryn clerked for a federal district judge at the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska. It was here that she found the inspiration for her play, Waaxe’s Law - the play that would lead her to The Public Theater. Waaxe’s Law is a retelling of the Trial of Chief Standing Bear, which centers on a Chief from the Ponca Tribe, and took place 135 years ago in the same federal courthouse Mary Kathryn was working in at the time. The play was performed in the actual courthouse, with members of the Ponca Tribe present.
Mary Kathryn was encouraged to send her play to The Public Theater in New York, as she was moving to Manhattan to begin working at a law firm. While her play was not accepted for production, Liz Frankel, Literary Manager at the Public Theater, told Mary Kathryn to apply for the Emerging Writers Group. She did, and was accepted into the program.
“It’s been one of the most life-changing experiences in my life. I actually have a theater career now,” she said. “(The Emerging Writer’s Group) gave me an identity as a playwright. I always felt like I was just a lawyer who enjoyed writing…I learned to accept my identity as a playwright.”
Mary Kathryn’s most recent play, Manahatta, has been selected for the first-ever PUBLIC STUDIO, a new initiative from The Public Theater which features two new plays by emerging and up-and-coming playwrights. PUBLIC STUDIO is conceived as a way to build on The Public’s mission to support new and emerging artists and to continue making new work accessible to all audiences. The Time Warner Foundation is a proud supporter of this program.
The idea for Manhatta stemmed from a children’s book Mary Kathryn’s stepmom gave her before she moved to Manhattan. The book, This is New York, featured well-known New York landmarks like the Empire State Building and Times Square. When she got to the page that talked about Wall Street, she was surprised to read that the “wall” was built in the 1600’s to “keep the Indians out.” As a Native American from Oklahoma living in New York City, Mary Kathryn was intrigued. She began researching the Native Americans that had lived on the island of Manhattan, and the idea for Manahatta was born.
Manahatta is one of two plays that will be featured at the inaugural year of PUBLIC STUDIO. The second play is A. Zell William’s The Urban Retreat. Performances will run from May 15 through May 25. Tickets are $10 and will go on sale in April. Visit The Public Theater website for more details.
A gripping journey from the fur trade of the 1600s to the stock trade of today, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s MANAHATTA tells the story of Jane Snake, a brilliant young Native American woman with a Stanford MBA. Jane reconnects with her ancestral homeland, known as Manahatta, when she moves from her home with the Delaware Nation in Anadarko, Oklahoma to New York for a job at a major investment bank just before the financial crisis of 2008. Jane’s struggle to reconcile her new life with the expectations and traditions of the family she left behind is powerfully interwoven with the heartbreaking history of how the Lenape were forced from their land. Both old and new Manahatta converge in a brutal lesson about the dangers of living in a society where there’s no such thing as enough. Written in the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, Mary Kathryn Nagle's MANAHATTA is a stunning new play about the discovery that the only thing you can truly own is who you are and where you come from. Kate Whoriskey (The Miracle Worker, Ruined) directs.