'8 Stars' draws audience into living history

Posted: Friday, April 10, 2009

"8 Stars of Gold" was a little rough around the edges on opening night - but that was just right. Running 90 minutes without an intermission, the play has a real-life, documentary feel that encourages the audience to become a part of living history.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The very room the play is performed in at the old Elks Lodge was the actual location of Alaska's first legislature. The room hasn't changed much since the '50s, and designer Art Rotch did a terrific job chasing up vintage desks, lamps and maps to help us intimately connect with the momentous makings of Alaska's statehood, a mere 50 years ago.

The playwrights (Ryan Conarro and Maia Nolan) cleverly conceive of delivering the information almost as if documenting their own research process. They, with dramaturg Merry Ellefson, interviewed dozens of Alaska oldtimers for their material, and settled on a fictitious cast of six eclectic "job applicants" who are selected to produce a 50th anniversary report on Alaska statehood. The actors play not only their main characters (the report team) but also a variety of key figures from Alaska history.

George Holly plays "Sydney" who tells of his grandfather being taken away to school and forbidden to speak his own language. Erin Tripp as "Irene" is another strong Native voice in the play, who attempts, not completely successfully, to guide the discussion, and ultimately the commissioned report, towards telling the Native story as well. "Irene" insists that her co-workers contemplate the undeniable truth that "the consequences of colonialism are personal." One of Tripp's roles is the Native delegate (Butravich) who accompanies Hickel to Washington, D.C., to campaign for statehood, and lays into Eisenhower about ruling Alaska "like he's King George."

But the expressed views of Hickel (and Gruening and Egan and Bartlett) to the U.S. president were more in line with the Robert Service poem that "we need 'men to match our mountains.'"

A major focus of the play is the first official delegation to develop Alaska's charter constitution, which took place over several months in Fairbanks in 1955. The most hotly debated topics at the time were fish traps, appropriate management of other resources, and, yes, the location of the capitol.

Carolyn Garcia, another of the actor/reporters, briefly also plays Rosita Worl who, according to interviews, vividly recalls attending the Fairbanks convention at age 17.

What conspicuously did not happen during the writing of the constitution was settling Native land claims. In fact, as I learned from this documentary material, Native land rights did not become part of Alaska's constitution until 1971, when strong Native voices finally brought to bear the significance of their lands. The play portrays the Native interest in establishing land rights as not simply based on access to material wealth, as with those (whites) who flowed north in search of gold and, later, oil, but based in the deeply held belief that "the lands enshrine our traditions, our history and our culture."

At first blush, the Native story gets rather short shrift in this production. On the other hand, the concept of statehood was a white man's notion, and almost totally driven by ambitions of white men. Flordelino Lagundino, whose principal character, "Steve," is a young student just visiting Alaska, said to me after the show that while the loud white guys - such as Wally Hickel, portrayed with playfulness and gusto by Charlie Cardwell - were opposed to colonialism as it applied to them, they certainly didn't mind "colonizing" the Natives. In a smaller cameo role Flordelino gives us a very entertaining portrait of Wally's wife Erma Lee which is alone worth the price of admission.

The sixth actor is talented Sally Smith, whose main character points out that the real story is how all of us, with our widely diverse reasons for living here now, became Alaskans. The play weaves the statehood history into both flashbacks to the early contact of west-moving Europeans with the 10,000 year old Native tribes, and flash-forwards to a typical bar scene with folks shooting the breeze about their lives, and where home is. Because no contemporary play about Alaska could be complete without a bar scene!

The grand finale is a depiction of the big Juneau parade with floats and fireworks and ringing of the big bell on that winter day in 1959.

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