One-woman Peratrovich play to premier in Juneau

Posted: Monday, February 14, 2005

Diane Benson couldn't help but identify with Elizabeth Peratrovich once she set about writing a play about the Alaska Native activist's historic anti-discrimination testimony in front of the 1945 Territorial Senate.

But something unexpected happened.

"As fate would have it, something I had never thought about was how much I would end up looking like (Peratrovich)," Benson said. "People that knew her have remarked on the similarity."

Benson's play, "My Spirit Raised its Hand: The Story of Elizabeth Peratrovich & Alaskan Civil Rights," has played throughout the Interior and toured the country since premiering in 2000.

It will appear in Juneau for the first time on Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, which is Wednesday.

Benson will perform twice. The first show, at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Tlingit & Haida Community Center, is a benefit for the ANB Camp 70 scholarship fund. The second presentation, at 7 p.m. Thursday at the University of Alaska Southeast Egan Library, is free.

Jeane Breinig, a visiting English professor at University of Alaska Southeast, taught Benson in a creative writing course at the University of Alaska Anchorage and served on her thesis commitee. She helped bring Benson to town.

"It's been well received across the state and a lot of people have seen it in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but it's yet to play in Juneau," Breinig said. "This is where it all took place, and I thought it was important that she come down and do it, especially on Peratrovich Day."

Benson also will read and discuss her poetry with UAS students from 1:30-3 p.m. Thursday in the Hendrickson Building, Room 113.

"For (Peratrovich) to be so elegant and eloquent and deal with such an ugly issue as racism was a huge attraction for me," Benson said. "I have struggled not so elegantly with that issue throughout my life, and I think that learning about her has helped bring about a certain amount of healing in my life."

"My Spirit" runs about 25 minutes and covers the events leading up to the testimony and the hearing itself. Her testimony before lawmakers on Feb. 8, 1945, is credited with helping pass the Anti-Discrimination Act, a landmark bill for Alaska Natives and civil rights.

This February marks the 60th anniversary of Peratrovich's speech, which was not without its dissenters. When Benson made an audio tape of the hearing to run with her one-woman presentation, one of the actors had trouble repeating some of the senators' lines..

"The fact is, as shocking as what the senators had to say on the tape, it was not an unusual sentiment at the time," Benson said.

Benson is a lifelong Alaskan and has worked as a poet, actor, truck driver, casting agent, paralegal, educator and director. She studied at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and earned her master of fine arts degree in creative writing. She was the Green Party's 2002 candidate for lieutenant governor.

She was 16, a high school student in Fairbanks, when she met Roy Peratrovich, Elizabeth's husband.

"He told me to stay in school and how important education was for our people," Benson said. "I took it like an order, because he had that way about him.

"In his later years, he told me about his wife, Elizabeth, and I thought, this guy really has this love for somebody who hasn't been in his life for a long time."

Elizabeth Peratrovich died in 1958. Roy Peratrovich died in 1989.

Over the years, Benson learned more about Elizabeth Peratrovich and ultimately decided her story needed to be told. She began writing the play in the early 1990s after two years of research. She interviewed Peratrovich's family, members of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, and Juneau resident Cecelia Kunz, now deceased, who was present at the 1945 Senate hearing.

"The passion with which she spoke speaks to a part of me that's very much that way," Benson said. "You have to have a real love for your people, a real love of humanity and a strong sense of justice, and she had that."

In the early 1990s, however, Benson couldn't find anyone interested in funding the play. She filed her research away until 2000, when the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage approached her about organizing a tribute in conjunction with Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. She wrote "My Spirit" based on her previous research, former Gov. Ernest Gruening's account in his book "Many Battles," and articles from the Juneau Empire.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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