'Cedar House' opens Friday

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2010

Locals don't usually have much reason to be envious of the tourists - apart from the fact that they are perpetually on vacation. But this summer, fans of Perseverance Theatre were no doubt chagrined to learn that a new play, "Cedar House," written by Ishmael Hope, was being performed four or five times a week at the Douglas Island venue for Cruise West passengers only. It didn't seem fair.

Photo By Cam Byrnes / Courtesy Of Perseverance Theatre
Photo By Cam Byrnes / Courtesy Of Perseverance Theatre

But if you were among the disappointed, take heart: "Cedar House" opens to the public Friday, with shows continuing on Saturday and through next weekend. All shows begin at 7:30 and are pay-as-you-can.

The play, commissioned by Perseverance specifically for Cruise West audiences, centers on five Tlingit stories drawn from storytellers Robert Zuboff and Cyril George: "The Origin of Mosquitoes," "The Clan Migration," "The Birth of Raven," "The Salmon Box," and "The Raven and the Brown Bear." Hope said the order of the stories, from Zuboff's structure, is basically chronological.

"It starts with 'The Origin of Mosquitoes,' basically the origin of sin," he said. "And then it goes through all these things that happened with the land: how did the salmon then come to the area? It was dark for a time, how did that come back? How does fresh water come to world?"

Hope, a writer, actor and storyteller, was able to bring all three of his passions to bear on "Cedar House." As well as writing the script, he is one of the production's two actors, with Frank Katasse. And, as a storyteller, Hope was able to study a master of the craft as well as to work closely with the stories himself.

"The centerpiece is Zuboff's storytelling, and I'm continuing within that framework as an artist, as a storyteller myself, which means you do have some individual takes on how it is said, maybe not how it goes," he said. "You just have a little bit of wiggle room to tell the story, which everyone uses if you know the traditional framework."

In addition to Zuboff and George, Hope also cited Andrew P. Johnson and Johnny Marks as creative sources, among others. Some of the translation work was done in Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer's Tlingit language class at the University of Alaska Southeast, and involved help from Fred White, Paul Marks, Roby Littlefield and Ethel Makinen. As he worked on the texts, Hope said, he became increasingly drawn in.

"When you really get deep into this, when you really start to learn this stuff, you start to see how profound and beautiful (Zuboff's) work is," he said. "It's just a different way of thinking."

"Zuboff is a storyteller, he's not super complicated, but the larger metaphor, the larger thing to contemplate is just a very rich philosophy which I think centers on how everything has spirit, and everything is alive. That's a really big thing to comprehend and it's so easily dismissed, I don't know why, by modern times and by science. But it's a powerful philosophy, and I think an enduring one."

Hope said he didn't have unrealistic expectations for how much the tourists would be able to absorb from the play; he's happy if they got 10 percent of it, he said.

"We draw it out a little bit, there's some commentary we make between the stories, and before and after the stories, but ultimately they get what they can," he said.

Because the audience might be unfamiliar with some of the basic elements featured in the stories, Hope decided to include visual projections of Northwest Coast landscape, wildlife and art, designed and executed by Roald Simonson.

"I wanted to do that because when you hear a story, and you're not getting things, a lot of it is because you don't know what an adze is ... or you're thinking about what a spruce tree is, or a what a sockeye salmon is," he said. "If you're not familiar with context you're just lost in that kind of stuff. So I wanted to bring that context up by showing the images as the stories are being told. And it ended up being a wonderful collaboration with Roald, and it adds an other element to the stories."

Presenting Tlingit stories to tourists had other challenges as well, Hope said.

"There are potential conflicts, there are misunderstandings," Hope said. "People are looking for exoticism, 'Oh yeah, wow, the dancing brown people!' They're looking for this kind of thing. And we do a little bit of dancing but it's integrated into the storytelling. It's something that's real. I wouldn't necessarily say 'authentic' because that puts the traditions into a museum-case context, but something that's really from a true, traditional source."

Hope said Cruise West's desire to expose their passengers to local performances such as "Cedar House" supports the company's general philosophy of encouraging their guests to go beyond consumerism and find ways to connect with the local culture. His experience with the tourist crowd was overwhelmingly positive, he said.

"Sometimes it's a tough nut to crack. (The tourists are) in this gauzy, foggy state and you want to snap them out of it and say, 'Hey, this is not Disneyland, there's people right here.' But thankfully, the tourists we've been working with, pretty much 99 percent of them, have been amazing and really appreciative."

Hope, who has worked with Perseverance for more than nine years, said he hopes to continue to help produce Native theater, for tourists or for others, and would welcome the chance to collaborate with the Perseverance team again.

"There's not much Native theater going on across the country, or in the world," he said. "And if we have these good, talented people, I think we should keep working with each other."

In addition to Hope and Katasse, the play involves a wealth of local talent, including former Juneau resident Flordelino Lagundino, who returned to town to direct the project, as well as Tanna Peters on costume design, Akiko Nishijima Rotch and Donnie Varnell on set design, Art Rotch on lighting, Simonson on projection design, Jay Seevers on sound and Caroline Samp as stage manager.

Hope, who had been living in New Mexico up until this past spring, said he is now in the process of moving back to Juneau with his family.

"What's great about this place is that its possible to follow your dreams and live as an artist," he said. "And to me that's the center of the universe."

Contact Arts editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or amy.fletcher@jumeauempire.com.

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