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After lengthy journey, all-Indigenous groundbreaking play ‘Distant Thunder’ reaches the stage

Spencer Battiest, center, performs in the all-Indigenous play “Distant Thunder” in Oklahoma City. (Photo Miki Galloway)

“Distant Thunder” struggled to find a home for the past decade.

The all-Indigenous musical, whose cast includes the Seminole Tribe’s Spencer Battiest, finally made its way to the stage in late March at the First American Museum in Oklahoma City. The show, a production of the Lyric Theater of Oklahoma, ran for five nights in front of audiences of 350 to 400 at each performance.

“The journey to get any musical to the stage is an interesting one,” Battiest said. “It usually takes seven to 10 years. This is the first time a musical was done with all Indigenous actors and writers.”

“Distant Thunder” was written by actor and writer Shaun Taylor-Corbett, his mother Lynn Taylor-Corbett, who is the director and choreographer, and Shaun’s songwriting partner Chris Wiseman. Over the years the play was expanded, songs were added and a cast was assembled to perform table readings in Los Angeles and New York.

Battiest and Shaun Taylor-Corbett first met when Battiest was cast for a reading in 2012 during the Native Voices program at the Autry Theater in Los Angeles.

“When I met Shaun, they only had three songs written and a few pages of script,” Battiest said. “We did a 20-minute presentation and throughout the years we kept in touch.”

“Spencer has been with the show since the beginning,” Taylor-Corbett said. “He has been an ambassador for the show and through him, I have met so many great Seminole people.”

In 2018, after a few years of development and more readings, Taylor-Corbett received funding to do a reading at the Amas Musical Theater in New York. The show was scheduled to be staged at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City in 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down. No one knew it would take another two and a half years to finally perform the show in front of an audience.

“It’s not a typical cast,” Battiest said. “It’s a diverse cast of Indigenous people from all across America. The show is the little engine that could; it just keeps on going.”

The show was finally set to perform on an outdoor stage March 23 at the museum, but a snowstorm forced it indoors. The rest of the run was performed outdoors in crisp weather; some guests stayed warm under blankets.

“It felt like a campfire vibe,” Battiest said. “Because of the weather, the show was trimmed from two acts to a 90-minute one act piece. It worked really well and got the message across perfectly. The payoff was the laughter and tears at the end.”

The play is about Darrell Waters, a successful young lawyer who, as a child, left his Blackfeet Nation home in Montana with his white mother. He returns years later to try to broker a deal with an oil company that could benefit the tribe financially, but the drilling location is at the site of an existing immersion language school. While he was there, Waters realizes the business deal could destroy the school and Blackfeet culture.

“A lot of the show is about identity,” said Taylor-Corbett, who has Blackfeet, Scandinavian and Black ancestry. “Darrell is an outsider who doesn’t understand why language is important.”

The story of a young boy taken away from his tribe and returns years later doesn’t exactly mimic Taylor-Corbett’s story, but there are similarities. Taylor-Corbett grew up in Long Island, New York, with his mother and said his childhood was confusing because of his mixed heritage. His mother took him back to the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, for the first time when he was 15.

Taylor-Corbett found a mentor in Darrell Robes Kipp, founder of the Piegen Institute, an immersion school on the Blackfeet Reservation. Kipp taught Taylor-Corbett about the importance of preserving language.

“I’m not a member of the Blackfeet Nation, but it is the biggest part of my identity; it’s how I walk in the world,” Taylor-Corbett said. “I always wanted to create a show based on his [Kipp’s] work and show it in a community who has struggled with the effects of colonization, boarding schools and other challenges, including youth who don’t understand why language is so important. It’s how they can become whole people in the world.”

After a performance which included some Blackfeet members in the audience, Taylor-Corbett said they ran up to the stage to hug him after the show.

“That fulfilled everything for me,” he said. “Bringing it to Montana would be full circle. I would like to bring it to the youth; we have roles that represent them and could have a positive influence. That’s why I want to bring it around the country to other Native communities.”

Battiest plays a teenager in the show; in real life, he wants to encourage them to be interested in musical theater.

“They can relate to it. It’s a story about family, community and how Native people live today,” Battiest said. “The show is a mixture of traditional musical theater and powwow dancing. It was uplifting to bring Native culture to the musical theater world. We made sure we shone a light on it in the right way.”

That attention to detail required Battiest to learn to do the chicken dance in traditional regalia. He already knew how to sing and act, but dancing was his biggest challenge.

“I don’t consider myself to be a dancer, but I knew getting to this level you have to be able to act, sing and dance,” Battiest said. “In a way the pandemic was a blessing; it gave me a chance to work on my stamina. During the show I was all over the stage, dancing and changing costumes. It was the highest level professional theater I’ve ever been part of. I can sing, but I had to learn to blend my voice with 15 others. It was my first time working with a musical director and performing with seasoned actors. It was the best education I could have.”

Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie attended the show with her daughter Mahala Billie.

“The story is what a lot of people go through,” Councilwoman Billie said. “It portrays how some of us don’t know our culture because we lived off the reservation. Spencer did a good job. I’ve watched him grow up and this was a different way to see him. It was good to see him do what he loves.”

Talking to audience members after the show, Battiest heard plenty of personal stories about how other tribes are also trying to keep their languages.

“The show has heart, family, community and conflict, which is how we live today. It was truly an honor to be part of something so revolutionary and new. We need to tell our own stories, like television is doing now with “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls,” Battiest said.

Taylor-Corbett is working on the next step for “Distant Thunder.” He is talking to theaters around the country and hopes to bring the show to Off Broadway in New York City.

“Hopefully, we will create a pathway in the next few months for the next place we are going to be,” he said. “This musical has the potential to bring people together from so many areas. As much as it’s really entertaining, it has a power that goes beyond; it’s more than just a show. That’s why we have to keep working toward that next production.”

The cast of “Distant Thunder” onstage during a performance in March at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. Spencer Battiest is in the center, front row. (Photo Miki Galloway)
Spencer Battiest performs in the all-Indigenous play “Distant Thunder” in Oklahoma City. (Photo Miki Galloway)
Dressed in chicken dance regalia, Spencer Battiest, right, performs in “Distant Thunder.” (Photo Miki Galloway)
The “Distant Thunder” cast gathers for a photo. (Photo Miki Galloway)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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