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Claudia Stevens imagines a meeting between Sacagawea and a Hollywood exec.

Fact and Fiction


Claudia Stevens loves history. Stories from the past inspire this playwright, actress and musician, especially when the material is neglected, misunderstood or incomplete. Her newest work, "Bird Woman, The Movie," is one such example. Her one-person musical-theater work is based on the heroic life of Sacagawea, who lived about 200 years ago. It will be presented by Fast/Forward at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday, May 5.

"Bird Woman, The Movie" focuses primarily on two characters: Sacagawea, the pivotal guide of Lewis and Clark's famous expedition through the American Northwest, and a flamboyant Hollywood star, whose personality resembles Barbra Streisand.

"Bird Woman" centers around Sacagawea's meeting with this aging showbiz maven, which clearly never occurred. This woman, a screenwriter "in the autumn of her career looking for enlightenment and peace," lends an irrefutable fictional element to Stevens' story. The time-traveling Sacagawea tells this woman about her life, with the idea it would make a fine movie. The two women expend much effort arguing about cinematic clichés and the screenplay's ending.

Sacagawea's character is based on what Stevens discovered after poring over reams of research material on the Shoshone native who was abducted from her tribe. Stevens discovered from her research on this heroine, whom she sees as having "disappeared from all consciousness," that there was missing, as well as contradictory, information about her life.

No one agrees on when she died, and many refute, too, whether a grave in Wyoming contains her body. For the most part, however, Stevens "religiously follows letters and historical material in which most of [Sacagawea's] personal relations are strongly suggested."

The show investigates "multiple possibilities of ending," a parallel to the lack of historical agreement as to the time or place of Sacagawea's death. "Movies tend to distort history," Stevens explains. "We're constantly reinterpreting the past." Essentially, the entire performance becomes a pitch for a screenplay, giving Stevens the freedom to comment on and resurrect this courageous, pioneering woman though song, music and sound effects.

Stevens wants us to reevaluate history with "Bird Woman, the Movie," which honors a woman who "was treated little better than a slave," yet is an "unsung hero" central to this country's westward expansion.

"There are so few accounts of the contributions that the [native] people made to this country," Stevens says. This production offers a creatively rendered account, a blend of fact with fiction, simultaneously getting us to look at a monumental journey by one of this country's foremothers.

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