Ramblin' Rhodes: Musical story of Cherokee woman comes to life in April

The world premiere of the historical musical NANYEHI – Beloved Woman of the Cherokee appropriately takes place the next three weekends in Hartwell, Ga., which once was regarded by the Cherokee nation as the “Center of the World.”


Portraying the title role is Michelle Honaker of Blairsville, Ga., who last summer performed in the classic historical drama Unto These Hills staged annually in Cherokee, N.C.

The musical features 17 original songs by country star Becky Hobbs and script by Nick Sweet. It is based on the life of Hobbs’ fifth generation great-grandmother, a legendary warrior woman and peacemaker among the Cherokees who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Performances will be 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, April 14, 21 and 28 and 3 p.m. Sundays, April 15, 22 and 29 in the 750-seat Lonnie Burns Fine Arts Center at the Hart County High School in Hartwell.

Tickets are $5 students, $14 seniors (60 plus) and $15 adults. Call (706) 376-7397 or visit www.savannahriverproductions.org.

Hobbs not only is related to Nanyehi (also known by her English name Nancy Ward) but so is Hartwell financial adviser Andrea Bradford, executive director of the Hartwell theater group Savannah River Productions.

That is how the world premiere of NANYEHI – Beloved Woman of the Cherokee came to be staged in Hartwell. Bradford’s grandmother in Bartlesville, Okla., (Hobbs’ hometown) read about the musical and let her granddaughter in Georgia know about it.

Bradford got in touch with Hobbs seeking rights to re-stage the musical in Hartwell only to learn it never had been staged at all in its entirety.

Although Blairsville, Ga., actress Honaker has deep roots in Georgia and North Carolina, she grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and graduated from Kaimuki High School there in 2006.

Honaker’s parents divorced when she was very young, and her mother moved Honaker to Honolulu. It was there she started performing in theater her freshman high school year beginning with the musical Once On This Island.

When Honaker turned 18, she decided to meet her father, Chuck Honaker, a Purple Heart medal honoree living in Blairsville. He had been wounded in Iraq in 2003 by a roadside bomb that killed one of his best friends.

Honaker experienced some culture shock going from Honolulu to Blairsville, especially since she never had been to north Georgia, but she quickly came to love the region.

“I was used to seeing some mountains, but I really was amazed by the weather. We don’t have seasons in Hawaii,” Honaker said in a call last week. “My mother died soon after I met my father, and I went from being a single child to being in the middle of five with my new family in Georgia.”

Honaker began attending Young Harris (Ga.) College, which changed from being a two-year institution to a full four years about the same time. It was there she continued her love of theater, landing lead roles in both musicals and dramas.

She made history of sorts herself by becoming part of the first four-year class to receive bachelor’s degrees from the college.

“I gave the convocation speech and sang the Boyz II Men song It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday with the other seniors as backup,” Honaker recalled. “(Former U.S. Sen.) Zell Miller spoke, and his grandson, Bryan Miller, graduated with me.”

In the summer of 2011, Honaker portrayed the wife of Tsali, a lead character in the historical drama Unto These Hills. She is repeating that role this summer.

“It was John Tissue, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association, who told me about the musical that Becky and (playwright) Nick Sweet had created,” Honaker said. “He told me that Becky had been in touch with him trying to find someone who could sing and who was right to portray Becky’s great grandmother. He recommended me.”

After this summer’s production of Unto These Hills, Honaker plans to try her acting and singing talents in New York City.

But over the next three weekends she will concentrate on the role of Nanyehi/Nancy Ward.

“Being the first to play this role in its first full production is overwhelming, wonderful,” Honaker said.

“I want to work at setting the bar for all others who will play her in my footsteps. It’s a lovely challenge. She’s such a strong woman with such a tender outlook on life. It’s an amazing role, a great script and the music is gorgeous.”


WHAT: NANYEHI – Beloved Woman of the Cherokee

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, April 14, 21 and 28 and 3 p.m. Sundays, April 15, 22 and 29

WHERE: Lonnie Burns Fine Arts Center at Hart County High School, Hartwell, Ga.

TICKETS: $5 students, $14 seniors (60 plus) and $15 adults; (706) 376-7397, www.savannahriverproductions.org

MORE: www.nanyehi.com