Native-themed plays build on myths, life

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

Louis Shotridge was a man between cultures. An early 20th century Tlingit from Klukwan, he became an anthropologist, only to find himself alienated from the culture he sought to preserve.

"Shotridge," a play based on his life by Fairbanks writer Anne Hanley, is one of seven plays to be presented at Perseverance Theatre's upcoming Native Playreading Festival. Two plays will be read Sunday afternoon, two on Monday night and three on Tuesday night, on the Perseverance main stage.

The Shotridge play looks at assimilation, said Ekatrina Oleksa, who has organized the festival, and it raises interesting questions.

"How do you assimilate and how far, how much is healthy? What should the relationship be between Western cultures and indigenous people?" she said.

It's an issue she deals with herself. The daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest, Oleksa grew up in a family that blended Alaska Native, Orthodox and contemporary American cultures and traditions. A full-time university student, she also has performed in a number of stage productions. She currently plays Hermione in Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" at Perseverance.

"I'm not any less Native because I'm studying jurisprudence," she said. "You can exist in both worlds in a healthy way. It's just really hard."

"Shotridge" features a cast of about 15 Native and non-Native performers, including some who spent time in Klukwan as children.

"There are people in the Shotridge reading who remember hearing stories about him growing up," Oleksa said. "That play in particular has struck chords with people who are involved in it."

The Native dance group Ldu Kut Naax Sati Yatxi will open the festival with a performance at 1 p.m. "The White Sail" will be presented at 1:30 p.m., and "Shotridge" will be read at 2 p.m.

Oleksa said the festival is an opportunity to recognize Native American literature. That's often overlooked, she said, because so much of Native American literature is part of an oral tradition. Theater is a natural extension of that, she said, and several of the plays in the festival are adaptations of traditional stories.

Several plays by Juneau screenwriter, playwright and actor David Hunsaker will be presented this year: "Lady Rankin Meets The Pagan," "The Cannibal" and "The White Sail," which Hunsaker adapted from Tlingit stories for Naa Kahidi Theatre.

"The Cannibal" tells a Native Alaska myth about the creation of mosquitos, and "The White Sail" is a Tlingit story from the Coho Clan that tells of the arrival of the Russians at Dry Bay.

"The Cannibal" will be presented at 7 p.m. Monday, followed at 7:30 p.m. by William Borden's "Turtle Island Blues," a whimsical exploration of the dynamics between Native Americans and Western civilization since 1492.

Tuesday night events will open at 7 p.m. with "Woman Who Married A Bear," based on a Tlingit story, followed by "Lady Rankin Meets the Pagan" at 7:30. "The Woman Who Turned Into A Bear" will be read at 8:30 and will close the festival.

Actors include Ishmael Hope, Andy Hope, Ruby Hughes, Zach Falcon, Doniece Falcon, David White, Hans Chester and students from Chester's Tlingit classes at the University of Alaska Southeast. Directors include Jake Waid, Gary Waid and Annie Stokes.

The plays will be presented with minimal staging. Some may have a few props or costume pieces.

Admission for each day's events is $5. The Native Playreading Festival is presented through a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

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