Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs’ legacy in new exhibit
Screenwriter and playwright Lynn Riggs was born on Aug. 31, 1899, a few miles south of Claremore in Indian Territory. He wrote “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which was the basis for the famous Broadway play “Oklahoma.” A Riggs exhibit titled “The Cherokee Who Brought Oklahoma to the World” is on display at the Claremore Museum of History. ROGER GRAHAM/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
A Cherokee screenwriter and playwright, Lynn Riggs also was a musician. One of his guitars is on display in an exhibit dedicated to him titled “The Cherokee Who Brought Oklahoma to the World” at the Claremore Museum of History. ROGER GRAHAM/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
CLAREMORE – The “Beyond Realism Exhibit” at the Claremore Museum of History includes an exhibit on Lynn Riggs that showcases the legacy of the Cherokee screenwriter and playwright.
Riggs, who was born on Aug. 31, 1899, a few miles south of Claremore in Indian Territory, is most known for writing “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which was the basis for the Broadway play “Oklahoma.” Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein adapted Riggs’s work in 1942 when they wrote the play.
Set in farm country outside Claremore, Oklahoma Territory, in 1906, the play tells the story of farm girl Laurey Williams and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly McLain and farmhand Jud Fry. A secondary romance concerns cowboy Will Parker and his fiancée, Ado Annie. The original Broadway production opened on March 31, 1943. It was a box-office smash and ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances and later enjoyed award-winning revivals, national tours, foreign productions and an Academy Award-winning 1955 film adaptation.
“He was a poet and a screenplay writer as well as a playwright,” Claremore Museum of History Executive Director and Curator Andy Couch said. “I would like people to know a little more about Lynn. I don’t think he gets very much credit for everything that he’s done, so just to know more about him and appreciate his work and what he’s contributed to Oklahoma.”
The Cherokee Nation is the event sponsor for a three-program series honoring Riggs. The first program was July 31 with the exhibit’s opening and a film screening at B&B Theaters in Claremore.
The second program on Aug. 31 consists of a box social and Lynn Riggs Birthday Celebration at the Dr. Carolyn Taylor Center at Rogers State University in Claremore. Riggs family members will attend and songs from “Oklahoma” will be performed.
The third program is Sept. 8, which will be a “Cherokee Cultural Day” when Cherokee artists show their work at Gazebo Park, which is adjacent to the Claremore Museum of History. Also, through a partnership with the Cherokee Heritage Center, the Sept. 8 event will include traditional Cherokee games.
“We’ve been doing a lot of research on Lynn Riggs here at the museum. The title of the exhibit is ‘The Cherokee Who Brought Oklahoma to the World.’ So we are acknowledging his heritage here tonight,” Couch said. “We have loans from the University of Tulsa, the Western History Collection at OU (Oklahoma University) and also another loan from the Groendyke Car Collection is here, and then our permanent collection is also on display. We’ve done quite a bit of work putting in a lot of research for this exhibit.”
Sally Ann Hoffman, a great niece of Riggs, said during the years his family had accumulated items belonging to him, which were eventually made a part of the Lynn Riggs Memorial in Claremore. The exhibit is a “new addition” to the memorial done with the help of Couch and the Claremore MOH. She said the family is “excited” about the exhibit.
Hoffman said it is not well known that a Cherokee wrote one of the most-well-known plays in the world because writers are the people’s “eyes to the world” and would rather promote the world rather than themselves. Riggs wrote 21 full-length plays, several short stories, poems and a television script.
“If no one else promotes them, then you have to get into their works to know them, and not many people are willing to dive deep,” Hoffman said. “Lynn was very talented in different areas, but his true acumen seemed to come through his writing. He could write many different kinds of things. He’s got poems, and he’s got works that are unpublished.”
She said her uncle, who died on June 3o, 1954, was also concerned with “the plight” of Cherokee people in his time whether they were young or old.
“He seemed to delve into the different barriers Cherokees, both older and modern, would come across. He’s still got some works out there that need to be seen and read,” she said.
Claremore MOH Event Chairwoman Suzanne Gilstrap said many people don’t know that Riggs was a CN citizen, and she hopes the exhibit informs more people about his Cherokee heritage and accomplishments.
“We say he’s the Cherokee man who brought Oklahoma to the world because ultimately the play he wrote, ‘Green Grow the Lilacs,’ became the play ‘Oklahoma,’” Gilstrap said. “One of the things that we’re so proud of is that the Cherokee Nation has partnered with us to do this event. Without their help we just wouldn’t have been able to do all that we’ve been able to do to celebrate Lynn Riggs.”
Visit Claremoremoh.org for more information about events honoring Riggs and tickets to the Aug. 31 event at RSU. The museum is at 121 N. Winona Ave. and can be reached at 918-923-6490.