Rue's 'Pioneer Women' is impressive, educational

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The people who staged a new Oklahoma-themed, multimedia musical theater production the weekend before last in Ponca City described their effort as a “leap of faith.”

That “leap,” organized in large part by women, reflected the energy of what is slowly becoming a kind of renaissance of interest in Oklahoma identity. The show, titled “Pioneer Women,” tells the story of the effort of wealthy businessman and politician E.W. Marland to honor his mother, grandmother and other settler women. The show also provides examples of the risks that women took as they followed their men to Oklahoma, and as they built, nurtured and defended families.

Marland’s campaign to create a “Pioneer Woman” statue gave him a means of hanging onto and interpreting the frontier grit of the women in his family and their peers. In the nine decades since the unveiling of the statue, it has given Ponca City residents a special starting point from which to evaluate their place in the world.

That sense of Ponca City identity was crucial to the development of “Pioneer Women.” Ponca City native Debra Harden Rue created the show and served as producer and musical director. Cara Kern Cassens, who began preforming at the Ponca Playhouse when she was four years old, was the director.

This show was much more, however, than the sentimental project of a few nice ladies from Ponca City. Rue has been a performer, educator and composer. She has had work nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in music. Cassens has acted in off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Additionally, the stage manager, set designer and musicians are all women of considerable experience and professional accomplishment.

There was, nonetheless, an element of the practical and the accidental involved in how “Pioneer Women” came to be prepared for the stage. Rue and Cassens didn’t know one another, and they met accidentally at a garage sale. That was the source of their collaboration – not a high-pressure job interview for an experienced theater professional who could direct the first staging of a brand-new show, but two women talking at a garage sale.

The result, which I viewed Saturday night, April 24, was an energetic mix of people of differing ages, backgrounds and experience levels who came together in a high quality version of community theater that testified to a grassroots urge to tell a familiar story in a new way.

People with Ponca City roots and connections told a Ponca City story in a downtown Ponca City theater, but the product had artistic and commercial implications for the rest of Oklahoma and small-town America.

Oklahoma history is full of stories worthy of consideration for the production of works of art, and the result has been a rich heritage of creative effort. From Lynn Riggs’ play “Green Grow the Lilacs” (1930-31) to Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” the state’s residents have authored theatrical scripts and novels that have inspired others to adapt them as musical theater productions and movies.

There is, however, what appears to this commenter to be another wave of creative expression taking shape that includes productions such as “Wahzhazhe,” a ballet about the Osage people, “Pioneer Women” and even the upcoming “Greenwood: An American Dream Destroyed,” which aim to remind us all of compelling Oklahoma stories about which the state’s current population may be under-informed.

Whatever else Oklahomans may be, they are restless and entrepreneurial and desirous of being heard. This is not "flyover country," is one of the inherent messages.

Just as Pawhuska’s “Pioneer Woman,” Ree Drummond, sought her future elsewhere before finding her heart back in Oklahoma, the Ponca City women who have combined to offer us “Pioneer Women” have brought their skill and talent back home. Now they are attempting to tell the stories of their foremothers.

It is an impressive effort, worthy of being repeated.