Michael Patterson: I grew up in a deep dark violence and pain to the point where I was ready to destroy myself…(starts to cry) but there’s always been a noble piece inside of me… I don’t know where it came.
On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, playwright Merry Ellefson and Shona Strauser, director and literary advisor, were sharing quotes from their upcoming play, Home But Not Less: A Play Built On Alaskan Voices. One of those quotes is from Juneau resident Michael Patterson, a Tlingit Raven Coho from Yáay Hit, the Whale House. Patterson’s is the voice of someone who used to be homeless.
In the theatre world, Home But Not Less is a type of nonfiction production known as “theatre of fact” or documentary theatre. The script is based on local speeches, workshops, and more than 100 interviews with Alaskans like Michael. There are five acts, eight actors, and more than 30 characters..
“Our job is to educate, to get the information out there, and to get the new voices out, but the stories are all of our stories,” said Strauser. “The guy who hangs out at the city building in the bathrooms downstairs is no different than you or I, but I have a place to sleep, take a shower and all of these other things that help me succeed, and that’s hard to see, and walk by, and hard to be near, but my job is to create the hope.”
Juneauites who attended the first sold-out version of the play in 2015 will notice changes to the script. The production, however, remains true to what it has been lauded for: humanizing Alaska’s most vulnerable populations.
“People said ‘you are changing the collective consciousness of this community,’” Ellefson said. “Daycare providers were giving feedback like ‘I used to have my kids walk across the street when someone was sitting in the street instead of walking by and just saying hello like we’re neighbors.’”
It was this type of feedback that inspired Ellefson and Strauser to bring the play into its fourth year of production. There are forty-five new voices from Juneau, Anchorage, and around the state; the voices themselves tell the story without the help of the former narrator, “Merry.” The play exhorts the audience to take action, however small. It also includes stories of hope and remembrance.
“We have to start peeling back the communal responsibility that we are all in this together,” said Ellefson.
Ellefson’s journey toward the play started while driving home from Mendenhall glacier.
“I was driving home from skiing at the glacier and there was a guy who was walking down the road and fell, in the middle of the road. I pulled over, helped him, called 911, and realized ‘Gosh, what happens to people in this town like this? Where do they go? He’s 19, his grandpa just died, and he doesn’t have a place to live,’ and that started my journey as an artist and community member asking ‘Whats going on with people like this?’”
Since the 2015 production, Ellefson and Strauser have realized conversations being held on homelessness in Juneau were identical to the conversations being held in Anchorage and throughout Alaska. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin Luther King Jr. Strauser puts it a different way: “We need to rise up and show them the grace we wish to be shown.”
“Home but Not Less: A Play Built on Alaskan Voices” will be shown at McPhetres Hall January 26-28 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 29 at 2 p.m., Feb. 2-3 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 4 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The Anchorage showing will be February 9-12 in the Church of Love on Spenard. Each show will be followed by a discussion with leaders and resource providers. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for students, available at the JACC and Hearthside Books. For more information, contact Playwright Merry Ellefson at (907) 500-8112.
Ray Friedlander is a freelance writer and filmmaker for her Juneau-based business, North to the Future Consulting.