“Unto These Hills” Illuminates an Ancient Connection of All People to the Earth | Cherokee, NC

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“Unto These Hills” Illuminates an Ancient Connection of All People to the Earth

Each year, outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” presents a powerful retelling of the story of the Cherokee people in the Eastern region up and through the forced removal in 1838 known as the Trail of Tears. The 2018 season in Cherokee, NC, runs from June 2 to August 18, with shows at 8 p.m. each night, except Sundays when the theater is closed.

The drama launched July 1, 1950 at the Mountainside Theatre with a script by Kermit Hunter. In 2006, the script was rewritten and used for subsequent performances. Last year, however, the original Hunter production returned to the Mountainside stage, updated for cultural sensitivity and accuracy.

The Vision

Marina Hunley-Graham has served as artistic director since 2012: “My job is to make the best artistic decisions for the company as possible.” In 2013, Marina brought in Marion Waggoner, a mentor of hers, to direct the show. Since then, their creative team (dance choreographer, set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, etc.) has remained the same (the only change in crew was a new fight director).

For “Unto These Hills” Director, Marion, the central theme is the endurance and triumph of Native American spirituality. “It is by no means the only theme present, but it is one that resonates throughout the script time and time again, and one I find extremely timely and powerful,” says Marion in his Director’s Vision. “The concept follows as to how the Cherokee persevered against great injustice and prejudice to retain, as well as strengthen, their cultural heritage over the centuries, since the advent of European encroachment upon this continent.”

Marion further explains, “My desire is to shape and tell this story in a manner that illuminates the ancient connection of all people to the earth, and how their views of connection differed. The Cherokee connection was based on a deep-seated spiritual connection originally, while the European intruders based their connection on a premise of individual ownership. The resulting conflict is was/is obvious, and takes shape in the form of overt violence and insidious cultural genocide…practiced on several levels.”

Powerful Elements of Production

While “Unto These Hills” is not a musical, it does have striking music and dance components. “The Eagle Dance is the signature piece of the show itself,” says Marina. “That what a lot of people remember us by.” Music tracks for the show was recorded by the North Carolina Symphony. Live musical elements include drum and song. Flutist Matt Tooni of Cherokee plays music during the brief pre-show, which features song and dance by the youth company. A promo band performs once a week in front of the box office beginning in the middle of June.

Last year, with the new show, the crew decided to introduce projections, which can be challenging in outdoor theatre. “The team came together and saw how they could make it happen,” says Marina. The only small change this year is with internal film and pictures.

The Cast

The 2018 cast and crew is comprised of 70 actors and 25 technicians. Included in the number of actors is a youth company of children from the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, NC. Adult cast members come from all over the country, primarily concentrated in the southeast. The younger actor is five and the oldest is in their 70s.

Marion says that “above all, the acting must reflect intensity, integrity and honesty.” In his vision, he states, “It must be driven, and delivered in a manner that is clear and logical. Honesty is our hard operative where the acting is concerned. That honesty has to come from a place that is motivated initially by the core theme, and supported by judicious application of all the above production elements. I truly want to avoid stylized interpretations at all costs.”

Returning for his 13th season is Mike Crowe in the role of Tsali. One of the drama’s stars, Mike has played many different parts over the years, including historical figure Junaluska and prominent Cherokee chief Yonaguska. Although he has portrayed Tsali a handful of times before, Mike is excited about returning to the stage with the updated original script.

“The way that I’ll portray him will not differ… He’s the same as he was before when I portrayed him. I just do my best. It’s humbling to try to portray somebody of that magnitude,” says Mike. “I’m looking forward to having a local person in that role. I think that brings another dimension in itself. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to play Tsali again. I gather motivation from the story itself.”

Other leads who have been with the company for at least one season prior include WCU adjunct professor Colin Wasmund as Preacher Schermer Horn; Charlotte-based actor Tim Ross as Yonaguska; Russ Yoe as the Cherokee Beloved Man in the first scene and a white soldier named Major Davis; Randall Braun as Junaluska; Lori Sanders as comedy relief Ms. Perkins; recent University of Houston alum Addison Debtor as Will Thomas; and Dean Coutris as Andrew Jackson.  

The cast and crew has been rehearsal for over a month to get ready. Each of them work 12–14 hours hours per day, six days a week (with Sunday off). “I’m just looking forward to another good season,” says Mike. “It has come together quickly and a lot of long days for a lot of folks.”

(Photo from the “Unto These Hills” archive)

Extend Your Experience

“We encourage people either before or after ‘Unto These Hill’ to go see the Oconaluftee Indian Village,” says Marina. “It’s a great living history.” New this year at the Oconaluftee Indian Village is a fully operational blacksmith shop circa the 1800s. Read more about this immersive experience, modeled after a Cherokee village from the 16th to 18th centuries.

“Go to the Museum,” says Marina. “You can learn a lot there.” The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is open daily with a new gallery opening this July.

“It’s all an encompassing adventure. You can spend two to three days just in Cherokee and you still wouldn’t learn it all. I’ve been here since 2012 and what I know, I could put in a thimble. Every day, I am still learning new things. There’s so much history!”

Get Your Tickets Today!

Where: “Unto These Hills” is performed at the Cherokee Mountainside Theatre, located at 688 Drama Road. Free parking for “Unto These Hills” ticket holders. The production lasts an hour and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Dates: The 2018 season runs from June 2 to August 18.

Times: The show starts at 8 p.m. nightly. The theatre is closed on Sundays.

General Admission Prices:

Adults: $25

Children 6–12: $15

Children 5–under: Free

Reserved Ticket Prices

Adults: $28

Children 6–12: $18

Children 5–under: Free

VIP Ticket Prices

All ages: $40

Cancellation insurance is $3 per ticket. Call the box office to get cancellation insurance with your ticket order up to the day before the show. Discounts are available for groups of 15 or more. Purchase your tickets now online, call 866.554.4557, or stop by the Cherokee Historical Association Box Office at 564 Tsali Blvd from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., or the Mountainside Theatre from 4 p.m. until showtime. For any questions on group information please call 828.497.2111 ext. 215 or 866.554.4557 or contact via email at chasales@cherokeeadventure.com.

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