If people recognize the name Lynn Riggs at all, they probably only know him as a tidbit of Oklahoma trivia: The Claremore native who wrote the play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which was adapted into the landmark musical “Oklahoma!”
But the Cherokee author (1899-1954) actually was a prolific poet, playwright and screenwriter who penned more than 30 plays, including six that were produced on Broadway. A Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Riggs wrote poetry that was published in the most prestigious literary journals in the country, and he worked as a script writer in Hollywood, where he befriended movie stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
“I had always felt a kinship to Lynn Riggs because he was from Oklahoma, he was mixed blood, and really a big part of his writing was exploring his own identity,” said Oklahoma City writer, performer and educator Russ Tallchief, who is Osage .
“But I didn’t know much about him, personally, either, until doing this play. And now, I feel even closer to him. … I just hope that we can bring him to life for others, so they can get to know Lynn Riggs.”
Tallchief is portraying the influential author in a special April 28 presentation of the one-man show “More Sky — The Story of Lynn Riggs” at the University of Oklahoma Memorial Union. Co-sponsored by the Mark Allen Everett Poetry Series and OU University Libraries, the performance will serve as a prelude to Riggs receiving a posthumous honorary degree from his alma mater at OU’s spring commencement at 7 pm May 13 at The Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium .
“I think it’s great. He’s getting one along with Susan Stroman and David Brooks … so he’s in great company — and so are they,” said Gregory Hinton, the writer of “More Sky.”
OU to honor writer, Broadway legend and former congressman
OU will award honorary degrees to five people during its May 13 commencement:
- Riggs, who attended OU from 1920 to 1923;
- Stroman, of New York City, a five-time Tony Award-winning director and critically acclaimed choreographer who has been a guest artist-in-residence at OU;
- Brooks, of Washington, DC, a bestselling author, New York Times columnist and the 2022 OU commencement speaker;
- JC Watts Jr., of Oklahoma City, the former OU quarterback who became the first African American elected to statewide office in Oklahoma and the state’s first Black US Representative; and
- James “Jim” Mulva, of De Pere, Wisconsin, a businessman and retired naval officer who in 2018, announced with his wife, Miriam, a transformational $20 million gift in support of the OU ROTC program.
“In their own unique ways, each of this year’s honorary degree recipients have enriched the world through their special talents and gifts, visionary leadership and service to others,” said OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. in a statement. “Without question, their selfless dedication has changed the lives of countless people, and they are an inspiration to the entire OU family. We are proud to confer the university’s highest honor upon these remarkable individuals.”
Playwright honored for depicting ‘allure and tragedy of pioneer life’
The national tour of Daniel Fish’s Tony Award-winning revival of “Oklahoma!,” which played Oklahoma City in January, is a testament to the enduring influence of Riggs’ work, Hinton said.
“I learned about Lynn Riggs on the front page of The New York Times when the ‘Oklahoma!’ revival was announced. They referred to him as a gay cowboy… and I thought, ‘What a great story.’ And I started looking into it,” Hinton said.
Born Rollie Lynn Riggs Aug. 31, 1899, on a farm near Claremore, the writer endured an unhappy childhood.
“Lynn’s mother died of typhus when he was 2 years old, and people told him later in life that the loss of his mother created personal issues for him, some abandonment issues, ‘a mother complex,'” Tallchief said. “His father of him did n’t really embrace him because Lynn was n’t like his cowboy brothers of him. He was a frail child, and his father of him just ignored him.”
Riggs’ Cherokee heritage came from his mother, Hinton said, so it’s unlikely he was able to maintain strong ties to that legacy after she died.
After Riggs graduated from the Eastern University Preparatory School, a predecessor of Claremore’s Rogers State University, he bounced from New York to California, working for the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. In the 1920s, he trekked back to Oklahoma, where he spent three years at OU and saw his first play, “Cuckoo,” produced there.
‘Lilac’ grows during fellowship trip
Suffering from ill mental and physical health, Riggs left OU one semester shy of graduating and traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to recover. In 1925, I produced “Knives from Syria,” a play featuring characters that paved the way for some iconic “Oklahoma!” roles.
In 1927, he achieved his first New York production when his tragedy “Big Lake” was staged off-Broadway. That helped him earn a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he spent a year in France, where he wrote “Green Grow the Lilacs.” It premiered on Broadway in 1931 and played a limited run of 64 performances.
Riggs wrote more than 20 full-length plays, including “Roadside,” “The Cherokee Night,” “The Lonesome West,” “The Cream In The Well,” “Laughter From A Cloud,” “Russet Mantle” and “Borned In Texas.” Some were raucous and romanticized, while others were dark and controversial.
Riggs also penned a collection of poetry, 1931’s “The Iron Dish,” and in the 1930s and 1940s, he worked periodically in Hollywood. He wrote six original screenplays that were produced, plus one adaptation, including 1942’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” and 1943’s “Sherlock Holmes in Washington.” During World War II, Riggs worked on screenplays for War Department films.
“He was thought of as somewhat of a script doctor. He worked on several big films, not as a principal screenwriter, but he kind of helped with the dialogue. … He saw Hollywood as a way to make money,” Hinton said . “But the plays were always his completely from him.”
Playwright left out of Pulitzer Prize
In 1942, New York’s Theater Guild planned a musical adaptation of “Green Grow the Lilacs,” with script and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, musical score by Richard Rodgers and choreography by Agnes DeMille. The first collaboration for the now-iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Oklahoma!” was a smash when it made its Broadway bow in 1943, setting up a record-setting five-year run of 2,212 performances.
“‘Oklahoma!’ became the first musical to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. Now, here’s the deal: Lynn Riggs was not included in that; it was only Rodgers and Hammerstein. … He gets a little plug usually in a tiny font somewhere that it’s based on But more than half of the script is Lynn Riggs’ — and in the play, he says, ‘I’ll admit to counting the lines,'” Tallchief said.
“Eleven ‘Oklahoma!’ Lynn brought his dad for the Oklahoma premiere of ‘Oklahoma!’ and said that his dad went backstage and told all the dancers they would n’t have jobs if it were n’t for his son. ”
Vandalism leads to one-man show
Riggs died July 30, 1954, in New York, of stomach cancer at the age of 54. He was buried in Claremore, where the Claremore Museum of History serves as the Lynn Riggs Memorial.
In addition, the Dennis R. Neill Center for Equality in Tulsa is home to the Lynn Riggs Theater. In 2019, vandals defaced a rainbow-hued Pride mural of Riggs there, which led Tulsan Dennis Neill to commission Hinton to pen a one-man show about the Oklahoma writer.
A Los Angeles-based author, historian and lecturer, Hinton devotes much of his energies to Out West, his national museum program dedicated to shining a light on LGBTQ history and culture in the American West. I have carefully researched Riggs’ personal papers and letters to write “More Sky.”
Directed by Pat Hobbs and starring Tallchief, “More Sky” had its world premiere in fall 2020 at the Lynn Riggs Theater in Tulsa.
“It’s truly an honor and a privilege for me to be able to portray and try to humanize him,” Tallchief said.
For Hinton, it’s fitting to have “More Sky” performed at Riggs’ alma mater.
“When he’s talking about getting accepted at OU…he goes, ‘Now who, after Chicago, New York and Hollywood, decides that it’s time to return to Norman to get his degree at the University of Oklahoma?’ And his reasoning of him was that the people made sense to him, and he was being accepted as an Oklahoma son to an Oklahoma university.
‘MORE SKY — THE STORY OF LYNN RIGGS’
when: 7 p.m. April 28.
where: Beaird Lounge, OU Memorial Union, Norman.