The Lyric Stage theater company in Irving, Texas is now showing its newest musical, Quanah, about the Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Produced and starring Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers as the Old Ranger, and co-starring fellow Grammy winner David Phelps—a non-Native actor—who portrays Chief Quanah, wears traditional pieces of Native regalia and as quoted by the costume designer, “authentic ceremonial eagle feathers from a Native supplier” as part of his costume.
The musical is about the story of Quanah Parker, his mother Cynthia Ann Parker and the Parker family settling in Texas, as well as their interactions with the Comanche people.
Grammy-winning country artist Larry Gatlin, of the Gatlin Brothers, said in a YouTube interview that 30 years ago he heard a story from ‘an old cowboy-poet Red Steagall’ about Comanche chief Quanah Parker. He was so moved by the tragic story, he decided to create the musical he dubbed an “American Les Mis.”
According to a deluge of comments on the Lyric Stage and other Theatre-oriented Facebook pages, Gatlin got it mostly wrong and invested in what many call “whitewashing’ of the Quanah story.
According to direct descendants of Quanah Parker, Gatlin also got the history wrong.
Hawana Huwuni Townsley, (Comanche) wrote to ICMN in an email, “They showed [one of the warriors in battle] my great-great-grandfather [who fought alongside Quanah] dying at the battle. He was not killed at that battle. He lived to an old age.”
“As a Great Granddaughter of Quanah and his wife Weckeah, I am saddened and upset at the misrepresentation of our relative. Quanah worshipped in the Native American Church. He did not accept Christianity. No churches of any kind were allowed near the Star House. His mother did not teach him these ways as she fully accepted the ways of the Comanche people… Mr. Gatlin’s made up version of history could have been told to him by actual family members who were raised by his children. Just like most Western tales and movies, it’s a farce,” said Davis.
Hawana Huwuni Townsley added, “it is so outrageous that they would write that my great-great-grandmother would have a Bible and be teaching her children in the midst of the battles in now Texas is completely ludicrous.”
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“Gatlin has spent 30 years working on this production. He clearly loves his subject, but the tuneful musical reveals nothing about Comanche stories, customs and beliefs. It’s literally told by a white narrator, the Old Ranger (Gatlin pouring on country charm), which underlines the point that this is Comanche history told from a white man’s point of view,” wrote Churnin.
“Still, as a critic,” Churnin continues, “even after seeing the show and experiencing how beautifully Phelps sings in Quanah (and he does sing beautifully), I agree that the company would have been wiser to find an American Indian actor to play the double roles of Quanah Parker and Peta Nocona.”
John de los Santos, the show’s director and choreographer, responded to the criticism in an email to the Dallas News, about an “arduous casting search” and when “David Phelps expressed interest … Larry Gatlin decided Phelps “was the best singer he has ever heard and the best for the role at this time.”
In terms of costuming, the Comanche regalia was designed with consultation by Sarah Tonemah, a Native descendant of Quanah Parker, who volunteered two weeks before the production hit the stage.
Tonemah told the Dallas News, “David [Phelps] wears beaver in his hair, authentic ceremonial eagle feathers from a Native supplier and feathers from other birds found in the Plains territories. He has real bone in his breastplate and a 100 percent wool native broadcloth blanket still used in present day for Native American regalia.”
Tonemah says her involvement garnered mixed reviews in her Native community, but she wished the musical might inspire more awareness about Quanah Parker. 14 descendants of Quanah Parker, including his great great granddaughter, did join the cast onstage after the April 29th performance.
The cast also has an absence of any Native actors aside from one who claims partial descendancy, according to interviews with Gatlin, they put out notices to local colleges, but received no response.
Townsley told ICMN she thought Gatlin was misguided in his efforts to tell the history and exhibited a lack of interest in casting Native people. “Apparently, Mr. Gatlin went to the tribe to inform them that he was doing a production but I did not get the idea that he asked for any input or searched for any descendants for guidance.
“The spiritual concepts that he is putting on … are a mockery. People will see and believe this as a real story because my ancestor was real. If he wanted to write a Le Mis [of the] wild west, he should have just made up completely new names.”
Neither Mr. Gatlin nor the Lyric Stage responded to ICMN’s request for comments.
Lyric Stage founder Steven Jones did respond to the Dallas News’ inquiry to lack of Native involvement in the production with an email stating: “that Gatlin’s grandmother, Nida Bernice Willingham, was half-Choctaw.”
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