ArtsATL

Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

History hasn’t been terribly kind to Pocahontas. A 1995 Disney-movie portrayal, for instance, is remembered more for its Oscar-winning song “Colors of the Wind” than for any real character insights. The world premiere of The True Story of Pocahontas — running outdoors through August 4 at Serenbe Playhouse in Chattahoochee Hills — tries to give the historical figure more accuracy and depth. Despite some narrative problems, it mostly succeeds.

Director (Tara Moses), writer (Kara Morrison), lead actress (Maddie Easley) and her understudy are all Native American. Morrison saw few mainstream images of her culture while growing up and always longed to see more reflected onstage, in movies and on television. As such, her Pocahontas is more real than the character has been in other incarnations.

English gossips (Zuri Petteway, left, and Meg Odell) in 17th-century Virginia’s Jamestown settlement (All photos by Casey Gardner)

Here, Pocahontas is the daughter of Chief Powhatan (played by understudy Kaley Morrison when I saw the show) and living in Virginia when English settlers come to Jamestown in the early 1600s. Pocahontas — also known as Matoaka — is captured, eventually finding herself in a relationship with a tobacco planter named John Rolfe (Micah Patterson). They have a lot in common, including losing their first spouses. Pocahontas has been separated from her family and especially misses her father.

John is curious to know more about her, and Pocahontas is happy to show him. As she is about to move from her beloved Virginia to England, she reflects on her growing-up years.

Much of the story is narrated by Pocahontas’ mother (played by Irene Bedard). Company members Megan Odell, Zuri Petteway, Brandon L. Smith and Barry T. Westmoreland play multiple roles — forest animals, Englishmen and gossips wondering aloud if Pocahontas can be happy away from Virginia. They provide comic relief, even if doing so dilutes the script’s more interesting elements.

Morrison’s script lacks momentum. After an introductory narration, Pocahontas and John try to get to know each other better and talk — a lot. Not much happens here, but when the story returns to Pocahontas’ past, it finds its groove. One particularly vivid sequence has characters navigating a river, with blue fabric as the water and bubbles burbling from a loudspeaker above the action.

Serenbe Playhouse, under the guidance of founder and executive/artistic director Brian Clowdus, has become best known for its adventurous, environmental take on musicals — Titanic, Miss Saigon and Cabaret come to mind. Since it began in the summer of 2010, however, it has done theater for family audiences — Charlotte’s Web, The Ugly Duckling, Peter Pan. The True Story of Pocahontas, which clocks in at less than 50 minutes, works for all ages.

Pocahontas company members — and tobacco planters — Brandon L. Smith (left) and Barry T. Westmoreland

Theatergoers enter scenic designer Scott Sargent’s Jamestown Settlement and his outdoor setting, which uses large rocks, trees and a boat. The story moves swiftly in director Moses’ hands, eventually covering a lot of ground and occasionally being interactive.

This is ideal for young audiences, although adults outnumbered children more than 2 to 1 during at least one morning performance. At times, The True Story of Pocahontas does have an Afterschool Special vibe to it — John learning that Pocahontas’ family wasn’t made of savages, for example, and Pocahontas speaking such lines as “being different doesn’t mean I am less worthy.”

The show’s heart is in the right place, though, and the title character fully developed. At its best, Pocahontas highlights unknown sides to the young woman who died at age 21. It’s persuasively acted too, with Morrison playing Pocahontas as a flesh-and-blood human being who’s proud, loyal and defiant.

“Native Americans were the first to inhabit the land,” the playwright says in program notes, “but American history often neglects to share the extent of their suffering or the richness of their culture.”

This is material the playwright and director can relate to, and it shows. The True Story of Pocahontas makes an appealing plea for tolerance and understanding. In the age of Trump, that sentiment can never be taken lightly.

Donate Today

Stay up to date on
all things Arts ATL