World Premiere Play Sells Out Opening Weekend, Attracts National Attention

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

CHICKASHA – Performing and visual arts fans from across the nation gathered in Chickasha last weekend for one of Oklahoma’s first official centennial events. More than 1,500 spectators from 30 states attended Saturday and Sunday’s performances of the “Te Ata” world premiere and its accompanying Native American Women art exhibit at the University of Science and Arts.DeLanna Studi as Te Ata

“Te Ata,” a full-length play by award-winning Chickasaw playwright JudyLee Oliva, combines Broadway quality costumes and custom lighting with a stunning multi-tiered set. The play also features live music performed by an orchestra composed of musicians from around the state.

Six performances remain for the colorful musical drama that captures the life of famed Chickasaw storyteller Te Ata Fisher, recognized around the world as an ambassador for Oklahoma and Native peoples. Tickets are still on sale at the door or by phone for the remaining shows, which begin Wed., Aug. 9 at 7:30 p.m.

A predominately Native American cast from eight states and 10 Native tribes presents the story of Chickasaw storyteller Mary “Te Ata” Thompson Fisher, whose Native name means “Bearer of the Morning.”

State, tribal and local dignitaries joined the festivities Saturday evening for an inaugural reception hosted by the Chickasaw Nation in the USAO Ballroom. Among the nearly 400 guests were 86 of Te Ata’s relatives.

“Some of us haven’t been together in 25 years,” said Te Ata family historian Gene Thompson. “The Te Ata World Premiere serves as the perfect event to bring together members of her family from all across America.”

At the pre-curtain event, USAO President John Feaver introduced a pantheon of state officials and leaders in arts organizations.

“We are gathered here this evening to celebrate the life of one who gave myth and legend to this college,” said Feaver, “myth and legend which now provides it with the enduring strength and energy 85 years later to do wonderful things for Oklahoma’s best and brightest.”

Among the most notable members of Te Ata’s family was U.S. Congressman Tom Cole (R-Dist. 4), a great-nephew of the storyteller. He was accompanied by his wife, Ellen, and their son, Mason, an educator from Mississippi.

“Te Ata may well have been the most unconquered and unconquerable Chickasaw of the 20th century,” said Cole. “She always believed that there was not only this glorious past, but there was a meaningful present and there was a brilliant future ahead of her and ahead of her people. She enjoyed telling the stories of the Chickasaws and of all Native peoples. She was really a remarkable pan-Indian ambassador to the world, performing before kings and queens and statesmen.”

A primary host of the event was Bill Anoatubby, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, joined by Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel, Chickasaw Supreme Court Chief Justice Cherri Bellefueille-Elred and Chickasaw legislators Holly Easterling, Mary Jo Green and Wanda Scott.

The evening was distinguished by a special ceremony during which all 86 members of Te Ata’s family gathered in an “Honor Circle” around a large drum used by the storyteller throughout her 70-year career. Chickasaw playwright JudyLee Oliva wove a 500-ft. piece of ribbon bearing Te Ata’s name through the hands of each family member, signifying Te Ata’s legacy that continues to touch people of all walks of life.

“Welcome to my dream,” said Oliva. “It has been a dream of mine for 13 years to get this play up in a full production. It’s been a struggle and it’s been a challenge, but how many people in their lifetime get to see their dreams come true? It’s happening tonight. We’re making history tonight. We’re telling an important story tonight.”

Lona Barrick, administrator for the Chickasaw Nation’s Division of Arts & Humanities, spoke of Te Ata’s cultural legacy.

“We are gathered this evening to commemorate Te Ata's beautiful life, her lasting legacy as a great representative of her people, the Chickasaws, and her courage and perseverance as a leader, artist, woman and cultural visionary,” said Barrick. “The ribbon represents Te Ata's ever-present spirit, forever circling and touching all who have come to know her story.”

During the ceremony, the Troutt Hall Main Auditorium was officially renamed the Te Ata Memorial Auditorium. Patti Rogstad, Chair of the USAO Board of Regents, joined in the dedication of the facility.

“Like the rising sun bringing each new day, the Bearer of the Morning has inspired generations of men and women to be filled with hope and aspirations for a better life,” said Rogstad. “We recognize Te Ata's lifelong devotion to education and her affinity for her alma mater, the Oklahoma College for Women, today known as the University of Science and Arts.

“USAO was founded on 20 acres of Chickasaw land donated by Chickasha businessman, Buck Sparks, in honor of his daughter Nellie Gains Sparks,” said Rogstad. “It was his wish that, following her untimely death, a women's college could be established on her tribal allotment.”

Barrick concluded the ceremony with the official dedication.

“Henceforth, from the drumbeats that resonate from her beautiful instrument, may the USAO Main Auditorium be forever known as the Te Ata Memorial Auditorium,” said Barrick. “May her memory forever be enshrined on this hallowed Chickasaw land.”

Gene Thompson beat Te Ata’s drum four times, symbolizing the four directions, the four seasons and the four elements.

More than 150 members of the opening night audience stayed for a late-night cast party, where Te Ata family members related their own memories of the elegant actress.

T-shirts, posters and other souvenirs are available in the Te Ata gift shop in the lobby. With tickets still available for the remaining six performances from Aug. 9-13, the university community is anticipating a large turnout this week.

More information about the “Te Ata” world premiere is available online at, and tickets are available by phone at (405) 574-1213.

As part of the Gala, State House Speaker Pro Tem Susan Winchester (R-Dist. 47) and State Sen. Ron Justice (R-Dist. 23) presented a joint congressional resolution in honor of the theatrical production, its playwright, the university and the Chickasaw Nation.

Other dignitaries included State Supreme Court Justice Jim Winchester; U.S. District Judge Tim Leonard, along with his wife, Nancy Leonard, immediate past president of Leadership Oklahoma; State Rep. Daisey Lawler (D-Dist. 24); Gov. Brad Henry’s advisor Dr. Don Davis and his wife, Beverly; and Interim Chancellor of the State System of Higher Education Dr. Phil Moss, and his wife, Peggy.

Other notables included Ann Thomson, executive director of the Oklahoma Humanities Council; Jeanie Edney, deputy director of the Oklahoma Centennial Commission; Greg Main, chief executive officer of venture capital company i2E; Bill Gummerson, chairman of the board for Preservation Oklahoma; and Mark Stansberry, a regent for the Regional University System of Oklahoma, and his wife, Nancy.

Additional names included Bill Bleakley, publisher of the Oklahoma Gazette; television anchor Gerry Bonds of OETA-TV and her husband Ken, a founder of Red Earth; Meg Salyer, vice chair of the Oklahoma Heritage Association; Debbie Williams, executive director of the Oklahoma Commission on Public Art, and her husband, Gary, who heads Creativity In Motion; Jeannie Hoffman Smith, advisory committee chair of the Inasmuch Foundation; and Mike Cawley, president and CEO of the Noble Foundation.

Also introduced were Julie Knutson, president of the Oklahoma Academy for State Goals; and Craig Knutson, chief of staff of the Oklahoma Insurance Commission; and Dr. Scott Barton, dean of the school of humanities and social science at East Central University, a partner in the production.