Playreading presents ghosts of the Stikine

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2001

A young woman searching for her past finds more than her great-grandfather's grave in "Stikine River Country."

Judy Shuler's short play will be presented as a reading at 7 p.m. Monday at the Back Room at the Silverbow. Lonna Stevens, Emily Cotter and Richard Benavides will portray the characters.

Shuler is a former journalist and freelance writer who now runs a Juneau-based tour company, Alaska Up Close. She was scouting the Wrangell area several years ago as a tour destination and was inspired to write "Stikine River Country."

She said Wrangell has been a cultural nexus for hundreds of years. For centuries, Stikine Tlingits controlled access up the nearby Stikine River, a lucrative trade route between Coastal and Interior Natives. British, Russian and American fur companies and trading groups came into the area in the 1800s, and missionaries used it as a headquarters. The writer and naturalist John Muir also based his Southeast explorations out of the area.

"There were all these cultures coming together in a pretty small town in a short time," Shuler said. She wanted to explore several ideas.

"How do people react when they come into contact with other cultures? What kind of things can we borrow," she said.

She was especially interested in the contrast between traditional Tlingit and European values - the idea that the whole family had to be accountable for the actions of one member, and atone for those actions; the idea of acquiring status by giving away your wealth; and Native reverence for nature and wildlife in contrast to the European view of dominating nature.

"I was looking at all these cultures overlapping, and this modern woman looking at it in her perspective," Shuler said. "There's a lot that isn't known so there's a fair amount of license taken. But the characters are based on real people and different readings that I've done."

The play involves a young woman who goes to Wrangell today looking for her great-grandfather's grave. The story also involves a Native leader of the past century, Chief Shakes. It jumps from the modern day back to the mid-19th century.

Shuler based the great-grandfather on a man named Buck Choquette, one of the early gold-seekers in the area.

"He actually has family here in Juneau, and one of the family members did a family history, which inspired me," she said.

The visitor sees a woman on the beach who turns out to be Chief Shakes' wife, and then she time-travels to the past.

Shuler submitted the play to the Last Frontier (Edward Albee) Theatre Conference last year. The play was accepted, read and critiqued, which she said was immensely helpful. She's continued to edit and rewrite the story.

"Writing a play is so different from any other kind of writing," Shuler said. "When you hear it out loud, you realize you have to deal more with dialogue and the way people talk."

The 45-minute play will be read at 7 p.m. The playreading is part of "Between the Lines," a series of monthly literary readings involving Alaska poets, novelists and playwrights. Admission is $5, and an open mike for readers will follow for anyone who wishes to present a short original work.

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.



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