The Cherokee Civic Theatre in Rusk is gearing up for the premiere of “Sultana,” an original play written and produced by Minette Bryant.

The little-known story of the sinking of the Sultana will be brought to the stage by Bryant for the first time.

Performances are set for Saturday and Sunday and Feb. 21 and 22 at 157 West 5th St. in Rusk.

To make a reservation call 903-683-2131 or visit cherokeetheatre.net.

According to Mississippi History Now, in April 1865, mostly ill and starved Union soldiers who had been released from Confederate prison camps were marched to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to await transport north on steamboats.

More than 2,000 soldiers were herded onto the Sultana, a steamboat registered to carry fewer than 400.

Sultana’s overtaxed boiler exploded and sank. By many accounts, the death toll was higher than the Titanic, the worst maritime disaster in United States history.

Bryant said it was important to her to tell this virtually lost story.

“‘Sultana’ seeks to bring life and redemption to the men and women who perished that night, and to offer our hearts to the survivors,” she said. “My number 1 goal is to bring awareness to this tragically forgotten story. I want the whole audience to, like me, shake their heads and say, ‘Why have I never heard this before?’ ... and then I want them to go study it. I want them to tell it to others.”

Historian Jerry O. Potter, who has written about the tragedy, is supporting the project and has shared information about the play with the Sultana Descendants’ Society.

Bryant said there is even be the descendant of a victim in the explosion traveling from Florida to be part of the play.

“Penny Lyle-Schlagfer, great-great-granddaughter of Samuel Dyer, a perished victim onboard that night, is coming to stay in East Texas for two weeks in order to be part of the show,” Bryant said. “She will be representing her ancestor, and listed under his name in the program.”

Several filmmakers involved in the “Remember the Sultana” documentary have reached out to lend their support to efforts to bring the story to stage and may attend a performance.

“Theaters in Memphis and Arkansas have already asked about the possibility of performing the show in their local area once we have a completed film and soundtrack,” she continued.

The theater will offer a free forum at 1 p.m. Feb. 22 led Bryant and Potter in which they offer more information about the steamship and its sinking.

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