Set sail to 'King Island'

Perseverance Theatre looks to bring new life to 'King Island'

Posted: Thursday, December 01, 2005

It's been four years since Perseverance Theatre's last production of the holiday oratorio "King Island Christmas," and those that have seen the play before may be surprised by director David Charles Goyette's visual interpretation.

Based on a book by Juneau author Jean Rogers and illustrator Rie Munoz, the theater staged the Juneau-born cantata four times between 1997 and 2001.

"It's going to be interesting for the community to watch, not just listen and hear," said returning cast member Tom Dahl (Capt. Crawford). "Visually they're going to be able to see the show, see the story in ways they've been able to see before. It's a real addition to the show, and we hope it works, because it's really complicated. It makes it much more difficult."

"The staging is the most different of all the shows I've done," said returning cast member Jess Lujan (Ooolorana). "This is the first show we've ever had props and an elaborate stage. The whole beginning of the show has changed. It's a new director's vision of what he saw, and it's opened my eyes to different areas of the show. This one stands out as a 180, a different take on 'King Island Christmas.'"

"King Island" opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, at Juneau-Douglas High School and runs six times through Sunday, Dec. 4.

Goyette, the theater's director of education, moved to Juneau about a year ago from Washington, D.C. His directorial debut in town was last winter's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a tragicomic production that fed off the energy of a tight, six-piece rock band in a 100-seat bar, the Hangar Ballroom.

"King Island," a semi-fable with strong connections to Juneau, is an entirely different process.

"I didn't look at previous productions, because I didn't want to be influenced by any visual design or what they had done in the past," Goyette said. "I wanted to make sure it was really fresh and something that expressed my own themes, things that I've dealt with in my own life."

"I think that some people want it to be a certain way," he said. "The community has a very specific relationship with (former director) Anita (Maynard-Losh) and her vision of the show. We're sort of taking them on a journey to a new place, which is something that as a newcomer to the community has certainly been a challenge."

"King Island" is based loosely on a series of events that Munoz witnessed when she taught on the island from 1951 to 1952. She told the story to Rogers, who shaped it into a 1985 children's book, "King Island Christmas."

Librettist Deborah Brevort and New York composer David Friedman turned the story into an oratorio in 1997, when Perseverance first staged the production.

In the story, the King Island community, just off Nome, is waiting for the freighter North Star. The ship holds their winter supplies and their priest, Father Carroll, but the weather turns foul, making it impossible for the community to row their walrus skin boat, or omiak, out to rendezvous. They carry the omiak over a mountain to safer water and reach the priest in time for Christmas.

"It's a story of great courage that transcends race," returning cast member Dahl said. "It transcends culture. It transcends all manner of those kinds of limitations that we impose on humanity. It becomes a very human demonstration of courage and strength and community, the willingness to work together. That sense of courage and community and willingness is echoed in this cast."

This production includes a pit orchestra (a portion of the Juneau Student Symphony) and a choir (the Alaska Youth Choir and adults).

"It really has been a journey of strangers becoming their own community," said returning cast member Gail O'Dell (Muktuk Woman). "We've taken on familial roles with each other, and just to watch that has been the biggest joy for me. To watch this community come together and to pass the love of the story and the music on to the community."

The play has not been embraced everywhere. Some King Islanders believe the story misrepresents and misappropriates their culture. One scene includes a calypso song - clearly not indigenous to the island.

In 2002, the King Island Native Community looked into the legal options of defending what they considered to be their cultural property rights.

Goyette and scenic designer Jennifer Morrell talked to Native Alaskans, King Islanders, Native elders and people at the Anchorage Heritage Institute to make this production as authentic as possible while still remaining true to the original story. Perseverance will also donate a portion of the proceeds to the King Island Native Community to support King Islanders, many of whom live in Nome most of the year.

"I've had the most difficult conversations with this show, more than any other show in my life," Goyette said. "But they're important conversations and representative of how people take this show to heart."

"Some people felt that the show portrayed Native Alaskans as these sort of happy, little people, and that it didn't really reflect who they were," he said. "And so in our staging, and in our relationships, I think you will notice that there are a lot more interesting little stories from person to person. For anybody who's seen King Island, it will be an exciting new journey for them."

The costumes include 1950s-era clothes that were on the island but are not specifically Native Alaskan.

"Everything that you see on the stage is actually authentic and comes from what they wore in the island," Goyette said. "We were very nervous about how we were going to accomplish that. We wanted to find a way that was authentic and honorable and shows the complexity of that culture."

That trickles down to the blocking, too. There is much more action on stage. Children play, actors partake in island activities. In once scene, the cast makes candles on stage - boiling seal oil and working on wicks.

"In previous shows, it's been more presentational," Goyette said. "This is a little more about trying to get a sense of what life might have been like on the island."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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