Curiosity prodded theater-makers Ping Chong, Ryan Conarro, and Frank Kaash Katasse to collect the different histories of the downtown Willoughby District, otherwise known as the old Indian Village, and to turn them into what is now the Juneau Histories Theatre Project. Hours spent interviewing people from the village, months spent researching, writing, and rehearsing, and years spent gathering the resources to tell these histories have culminated in a multimedia performance of true stories. It is named after the traditional opening phrase of Tlingit oratory: “Aan Yátx’u Sáani: Noble People of the Land.”
These are the histories of people whose stories are not as often told. The performers share the experience of growing up in the Juneau Village, but that’s where their stories diverge. Ernestine Saankalaxt’ Hayes, Khinkaduneek Paul Marks, Lillian Petershoare, Marcelo Quinto, and Walter A. Soboleff, Jr. represent a diverse range of experiences in their histories as well as their identities. Ping, Conarro, and Katasse set out to represent as full a range of experience as possible in the Juneau Histories Theatre Project, which is reflected in the diversity of gender, heritage, and race. The stories in “Aan Yátx’u Sáani” represent the Filipino community, the Tlingit and Haida communities, and the unique experience of what it was like to grow up with mixed heritage in mid-twentieth century Juneau.
Alaska State Writer Laureate and Associate Professor of English Ernestine Hayes was immediately interested when Katasse told her about the project. She recognized the importance of raising up voices which aren’t often heard. Her voice, which she acknowledged has found an audience through her books, “Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir” and “Tao of Raven,” as well as through her teaching and public speaking, gains context when paired with the voices of those who grew up in the same area downtown.
“People who grew up in Juneau during the same time period as I did have often expressed surprise at the difference between the Juneau I knew and the Juneau they knew. I’m sure that this project will do the same for many people: it will show the many layers and aspects of the place we share. It will bring us all closer together, and it will strengthen the relationships of people who call Juneau their hometown — and people who call Juneau home.”
Hayes encouraged her community members to partake in the “rare experience” of the Juneau Histories Theatre Project. She expressed that the rehearsal process, while rigorous, was worth it for the opportunity to “hear the other stories, listen to events that happened in other lives, and share memories of old places and people long gone.”
Conarro, a cornerstone of the project, was first approached with the idea of spearheading a story-gathering venture based around the Willoughby District in 2014. The Juneau Arts and Humanities Council (JAHC) and Perseverance Theatre were working in partnership at the time, and part of the plans for the future Juneau Arts and Community Center (JACC) building involved weaving in the histories of the area. Conarro’s mission was to research whether there were enough stories surrounding the area to merit a creative project about it. By the end of the summer, his answer was “yes.”
Conarro suggested a collaboration between the JAHC and the Ping Chong Company due to Ping Chong’s 25 years of experience with a form of theater called “Undesirable Elements.” These performances work to represent the stories of people on the margins of a society, such as immigrants in Japan or Muslims in America, by interviewing people from these communities and turning their stories into a piece of theater. The unique angle of the “Undesirable Elements” projects, however, is that the interviewees become the performers.
“It’s not simply, we need you for an hour or two and then we’re going to go away with professional actors to portray you, and then hopefully you’ll come back to see the show and hopefully you’ll like it. It’s not that,” Conarro said. “It’s actually that we want to meet you and learn from you and hear your stories if you’d like to share them, and also are you interested and willing to engage in a much more intensive month-long creative process with us to appear on stage yourself.”
The “Undesirable Elements” format is one that’s been honed and refined for two and a half decades. It is simple at its core, centering around five performers with music stands. There is no memorisation involved but instead a focus on the delivery of the story, among other theatrical elements. “Aan Yátx’u Sáani: Noble People of the Land” is a multimedia production, with music and video production complementing the storytelling aspect.
Part of the musical facet involves the sons of one of the performers, Paul Marks. Elijah Marks and Paul Marks II will interweave singing and drumming with the histories of the project. The video projections are a collaboration between Greg Mitchell, an artist based in Santa Barbara who has worked in Juneau several times, and three Tlingit visual artists: Abel Ryan of Juneau, Robert Davis Hoffmann of Sitka, and Ian Petershoare, son of performer Lillian Petershoare, who contributed artwork which lends an abstract, but poetic, dimension to the histories shared on stage. Historical images are also interspersed, contrasting the way the Indian Village used to look with how it looks now.
“It’s a super crazy collaboration,” Katasse said. “So much stuff goes into this project. There are so many moving parts that it’s pretty amazing to finally see it go on this week. It was a learning experience for me as a theater artist to see how much goes into this.”
Katasse was brought into the project as Juneau’s community liaison. He and Conarro are old friends and collaborators. As a well-established playwright, theater maker, and closely connected part of the Alaska Native community, Katasse was a natural pick. He attended a theater intensive at the Ping Chong Company in 2015 to learn the “Undesirable Elements” style and has been a part of the writing and rehearsal process ever since.
He and Conarro both described a time-intensive interview process involving over 20 participants at two-to-three hours a pop. Once they found their five performers, they combined research and stories to create a cohesive theme.
“It’s sort of organizing people’s lives more than actually taking creative license to write,” Katasse said. “It’s like you’re simmering it down. You’re losing a little bit but you’re making it more potent.”
In order to preserve the stories of everyone who shared with them, instead of just the five who are featured in the performances, the Juneau Histories Theatre Project teamed up with Sarah Campen of Gustavus and Miciana Hutcherson of Juneau to create an online archive. Found at aanyatxu.org, the archive preserves the histories of those who were willing to share at the Story Circles that Conarro and Katasse led during the interview stage of the project.
“We had so many other incredible, powerful conversations, so what happens to those? With the Arts Council we worked out a plan to create a website that is an archive of glimpses of the stories, of not just these five, but all of the other people that we spoke to as a part of the making of this project,” Conarro said.
Both the stories in the archive and those performed on stage deal with heavy issues at times. But both Conarro and Katasse felt that the project has an overall hopeful tone.
Katasse explained, “We want to know about the real history. We want to know about the present, but we also asked what they hoped for the future. They all had very different ideas and aspirations and hopes for the future and I think that’s important. You have to be able to leave a show feeling hopeful.”
Conarro agreed, saying, “While the piece is so much about looking back into the past that many of us don’t know about, it’s also about hearing from these important voices what might the future be and how can we work towards that together.”
Performances will be on Thursday, March 29, 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Friday, March 30, at 10:30 a.m. (sold out) and 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, March 31, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Go to jahc.org for more information.
Jack Scholz is the Capital City Weekly intern.