By Annie Bohling
March 2, 2017
A tribute to a well-known Lakota tribe leader in the form of a rock opera?
It’s happening in Lincoln Thursday through Sunday of this week, March 2 through 5. “Sitting Bull’s Last Waltz” opens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Johnny Carson Theater at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Sitting Bull’s Last Waltz” is a rock opera about the fatal showdown between Lakota holy man and leader Sitting Bull and agent James McLaughlin at Standing Rock Agency in the 1880s, according to the press release for the musical.
It’s also about the story and years leading up to that fatal showdown, exploring Sitting Bull’s final years as an international celebrity and performer in the Wild West Show, his close friendships with Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill and Catherine Weldon, as well as his involvement in the Ghost Dance and escalating conflict with agent James “White Hair” McLaughlin at Standing Rock, the press release reads.
And, more specifically, the musical is in post-punk fashion. Writer John Templin Schliesser said he knew he didn’t want to make the story into a traditional musical nor a traditional Native American piece. He said a rock opera in punk fashion pulled from Schliesser’s ear for music and captured the spirit of Sitting Bull, who was a musician and a leader in resisting the government.
“It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to do it,” Schliesser said.
Schliesser created and wrote the script and songs starting four years ago, later working with musicians and other professionals to further develop the production. Schliesser resides in California, where the play had a week-long run in Los Angeles.
“I grew up in Lincoln, but my grandfather lived in the western part of the state, which is the heart of Lakota country,” Schliesser said. “I spent a lot of time in western Nebraska but I also spent a lot of time in Lincoln absorbing a lot of literature of the Lakota.
“Sitting Bull was a figure who always fascinated me, specifically in his final years and what led up to his death. … I was always interested in and even haunted by Sitting Bull’s death.”
Leo Yankton is a Lakota man who plays two characters in the musical.
“When I first found out they were making a musical about part of Sitting Bull’s life, I was skeptical about how it could be done in an inappropriate way,” Yankton said. “But it’s done in a really respectful way. It’s a really interesting story and it’s not done in a cheesy way. It’s a very artistic, musical view of Sitting Bull, and I really like that. I like the fact that John has been taking the time to get feedback and input from actual Native American elders.”
Yankton said the most challenging part of the production was developing and singing the songs, which he said are sang in English but have an accent and style of traditional Lakota song.
“I want everyone to come out and support the musical and realize it’s really unique compared to a lot of other musicals,” Yankton said. “It has a Native twist to it and you never see that.”
“It’s been kind of magical,” Schliesser said of the years of developing the production. “This whole piece has been interesting. You never know when you start a piece like this. But I’ve been lucky that the right people have gotten involved at the right time.”
The play is set in Standing Rock in the late 1880s.
“It’s been neat bringing it back to Lincoln, not just for the fact that this is Lakota country and this is a tribute to a great Lakota leader,” Schliesser said, “but it has so much more meaning in the Omaha area than it does in L.A. because of what’s been happening with the pipeline and Standing Rock and Whiteclay – all of these issues that are being talked about right now.”
All ticket sales from “Sitting Bull’s Last Waltz” will benefit individuals at Standing Rock in some way, Schliesser said. Several people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in recent months were arrested, so the money will likely help pay for such legal fees, he said.
“The same issues from this story in the 19th century don’t go away, like using land as a profit-making venture,” Schliesser said.
In his time reading Lakota literature and biographies about Sitting Bull and in his time researching for and developing “Sitting Bull’s Last Waltz,” Schliesser said he’s learned a lot about viewing humankind as guests of the Earth.
“Sitting Bull’s Last Waltz” is an artistic and historical musical that focuses on the last seven years of Sitting Bull’s dynamic life. Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man and leader, as well as a singer, artist and actor.
The musical, presented by Traveling Talisman Productions, will show at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Sunday and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Johnny Carson Theater at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Sitting Bull’s Last Waltz” is produced by Schliesser and Kathleen Dougherty, scored by Gregg Foreman (Cat Power), and directed by award-winning Director Lara Marsh. It stars Alan Tafoya as Sitting Bull, and features a mixed cast of local and Los Angeles-based performers.
Ticket prices are $25 for adults and $15 for student/youth. All ticket proceeds will be donated to Standing Rock. Tickets may be purchased at the Lied Center Ticket Office located at 12th and Q Street in downtown Lincoln, by phone at 402.472-4747 or online at sittingbullslastwaltz.com.