Many plays that appear on Juneau’s stages travel across considerable distances of time and geography to get here — for example, from Shakespeare’s 16th century England, or from Theresa Rebeck’s modern day New York.
Others are born right here, cultivated in the rich soil of Southeast Alaska history and culture. Local playwright Ishmael Hope’s latest work, “The Defenders of Alaska Native Country,” is such a work. Though offset by 100 years, the play is very closely tied to the history of this place — as well as to Hope’s own family history — and to Tlingit culture, in ways both obvious and subtle.
A work in progress, the play is based on the factual history of the early days of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, particularly the struggles of William Paul, a complicated hero whom Hope has come to admire greatly. The script also features historical figures Louis Paul, Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich, Frank Johnson and Andrew Hope, the playwright’s great-grandfather.
The play, which is being produced by Perseverance Theatre, will be presented in its current iteration during a public reading on Saturday at the Tlingit and Haida Community Center. It features local actors Frank Katasse, Jerry Demmert, Lance Twitchell, Ben Brown, Mike Hoyt and Victoria Johnson, as well as Anchorage-based actor and storyteller Jack Dalton as William Paul. Flordelino Lagundino is the director.
Hope based the play on extensive research he has done on the lives of these men and women at Sealaska Heritage Institute and through the University of Alaska library system, a project supported by Perseverance Theatre. He said a love of history and a desire to honor the elders who lived it is part of what spurred him to write it.
“Every single stage (of this project), from the first word I’ve written to the workshop to now, every single thing has been tied into this goal, which is I love this history, it’s a beautiful history, I admire the leaders from this history — and it’s worth sharing.”
The inspiration for the script came directly from Peter Metcalfe’s essay, “The Sword and the Shield,” about the ANB’s defense of aboriginal land claims, and the connections of that work to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Researched by Kathy Ruddy, the essay was begun as a joint project with Ishmael Hope’s father, Andrew “Andy” Hope III. Hope said after he read the essay, he realized how little he knew — even though he’d grown up hearing about ANB history from his father. Hope’s great grandfather, Andrew Hope Sr., joined the ANB in 1914, and is the man for whom the ANB Hall is named.
“I grew up around the ANB, I grew up running around the ANB halls, listening to the elders, experiencing what it’s like to be in that environment and in that company. And I’ll always try to write from that place.”
In telling the story, he has also given a lot of thought to how the play can reflect a more subtle and deep connection to the minds and spirits of the people he has written about and Tlingit culture itself, something he refers to as “indigenous ways of knowing.” In other words, he wants to tell a Native story from a Native point of view.
“ANB had English only meetings, it was using Western tools to fight for our people. My grandfather always talked about that. Something that’s been so important to me was that it’s not just race that people are fighting for, its a whole way of being, an indigenous way of being, seeing the world, knowing and understanding that has been passed down to us. It’s not just the fact that we are ethnically Native. In a lot of ways we lose the people if we lose the language and the culture and the ways of being and knowing. And that’s why its been so important to me, trying to have that be embodied.”
Hope stressed that this mind-set is not exclusionary, comparing it to the work of African America playwright August Wilson. Rather it’s goes against the notion that there is one, “universal” way to tell a story.
“That central idea — and August Wilson talked about this as well — he wanted to write African American plays by an African American artists for an African American audience, and that’s not to exclude people in any way whatsoever, but it’s to reject the idea that somehow there’s a universal, totally objective aesthetic or way of telling stories. And to say the more ethnic you get, the more involved in a culture you get, the better possibilities you may have for that story.”
The ways that this play will communicate that idea are still being determined through work with the actors this week.
Director Lagundino said sharing the idea of Tlingit “thought space” with the audience has been a challenging one for him. Now attending graduate school at Brown University, Lagundino said he sees all the conversations around this idea and the project as an integral part of the creative work, and of the play itself.
“I feel like with cultural work like this it’s about unearthing knowledge. It’s about lifting it up so people can see it. ... And as we’re talking about it, I myself am learning about it, moving from not knowing to knowing. All the interactions you have along the way.”
Lagundino and Hope have worked together before. Their last joint project, and Hope’s last project with Perseverance, was 2011’s “The Reincarnation of Stories,” a bilingual retelling of a traditional Tlingit story about the birth of killer whales. That play was a co-production of Perseverance and Lagundino’s Generator Theater company.
With the current project, the two men are also heavily involved in discussions about form, and how their form fits within or deviates from traditions of American theater. Though the script for the current project was finished a while ago, it has been shortened and refined over time based on feedback from small audiences and from the cast. The final form is at this point still fairly fluid as the men work on the play and the cast puts forth their energy this week.
“You have form and you have spirit,” Hope said. “I’m asking to put some indigenous spirt into that form. And to play around with the form to give it some space.”
The eventual plan for how the play will be produced, or if it will be produced, is also currently undetermined. Hope said just having the public reading on Saturday is immensely rewarding for him.
In the end, his hope is for his audience, including those with no prior knowledge of this history, to connect with the story and with the individuals who lived it.
“If it connects with them, that’s a success to me. Not whether if fits into an idea of how a play should be. Just if it connects with them on a very simple, sincere level.”
KNOW AND GO
What: A reading of “The Defenders Of Alaska Native Country”
Where: Tlingit and Haida Community Center, 3235 Hospital Drive
When: Saturday March, 30, 2013, at 7:30 p.m.