The pace at which producers of Hawaiian and Alaskan Native theatres are creating original offerings specific to their lands and peoples and mounting them on their mainstages ranges somewhere in the giddy spectrum between prestissimo and full-tilt boogie.
“We’re experiencing a Native arts revival right now,” said Alaska Native playwright Vera Starbard, whose autobiographical advocacy play Our Voices Will be Heard was performed in Juneau, Anchorage, Hoonah, and Fairbanks. “There was one in the ’70s, and we’re right in the middle of a pretty exciting one now.”
Part of the exhilaration comes as a result of resources to match the rhetoric of support for Native theatre arts. In 2016 Starbard was granted $205,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to sustain her while she creates three full-length Alaska Native plays over three years. Likewise, funding was obtained for Dark Winter Productions, an ensemble production company Starbard formed with her husband and a few other Native writers to ready their scripts for staging.
There is also an attitudinal shift by institutional gatekeepers toward inclusion of Native theatre artists, some of whom have been maintaining the vision for a very long time with minimal support. The first Hawaiian-language play presented at the Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa was in February 2015, “in the theatre’s 51st season,” said Tammy Haili’ōpua Baker, who wrote it as the inaugural offering of a Hawaiian theatre program she helped establish in 2014. Her body of work includes two dozen plays in Hawaiian and Pidgin written since 1995. She repeated for emphasis: “Half a century to get anything Hawaiian on that stage.”
But now that the vessel’s been unstoppered, there’s a growing groundswell of audience demand for shows with Native-centric realities and expression.
“The success of Our Voices was completely community-driven,” said Starbard. “I never sent it anywhere, I never asked. It was a massive experience of what a community can give you when they see it and want it.”
Tlingit actor and playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse said he sees a category shift. “Indigenous stories are now seen as American stories,” he offered. “They need to be told and audiences need to hear them.”
And crucially it’s not only at culturally specific companies that this work is taking root. Katasse’s cultural identity play They Don’t Talk Back was staged at California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2016 and at Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre in 2017. The new playwright got to see two polar opposite but equally authentic portrayals of the role of his teenage protagonist—one grittier, he said, and one more animated in his body language.
“I couldn’t believe how different the actors were in their interpretations,” he remarked. “I write these parts that are tricky, and think this will be so hard to cast—a teenage Native actor that can dance and rap and do monologues. And then we do find it, and it’s so rewarding.”
Katasse teaches theatre in schools to Alaska Native kids, and encourages them to take acting seriously. “They didn’t even know this was a career option,” he said.
Indeed, to keep pace with demand, artistic directors Harry Wong III at Kumu Kahua Theatre and Eric Johnson at Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY) on Oahu, and Art Rotch of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau and Anchorage, are prioritizing both actor training and play development. They’re actively building capacity through initiatives such as the Playwright’s Circle, a Perseverance program in which Starbard and Katasse are developing new works. All three theatres have long histories and deep roots in their communities.
Perseverance was founded in 1979 by Molly Smith as a theatre by, for, and about Alaskans. Honolulu Theatre for Youth, which was established in 1955, is one of the oldest children’s theatres in the country.
“HTY has the best productions, the best acting,” said Wong about his neighboring theatre. “I can’t say enough about what they do for our kids—they teach them how to watch theatre. And Kumu Kahua benefits.”
Kumu Kahua (“original source” in Hawaiian) was established in 1971 by university students wishing to pursue experimental forms with Professor Dennis Carroll, an Australian. Its emphasis under Wong’s artistic direction is expression for ethnically diverse locals telling stories about Hawai‘i, a place where no single ethnic group is a majority.
Katasse received his degree at UH Mānoa and has nothing but accolades for the Honolulu theatre scene.
“I did a couple of shows for Harry Wong at Kumu Kahua,” Katasse recalled. “It’s one of the gems of the American theatre—the quality, the topics, and making sure they’re very specific to Hawai’i. Their shows have influenced my vision of myself as a Tlingit playwright.”
UH Mānoa’s newly established Hawaiian Theatre Department is the first and only graduate academic program devoted to Hawaiian-language theatre in the world. Everyone, perhaps especially Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker, who birthed it, has high hopes for the graduates’ potential impact in Hawai‘i.
“My aspiration is to have one playwright and director for every four or five of the eight islands in the archipelago,” said Haili‘ōpua Baker. “It’s important that it happen all cross the island chain so that our stories can provide a foundation for our children, and they do not feel they have to prove their validity.”
In this Haili‘ōpua Baker has a kindred spirit in Allan Hayton, language revitalization program director at Doyon Foundation. Meanwhile, 3,000-plus miles away in Fairbanks, Alaska, Hayton pursues theatre as a vehicle for cultural and linguistic survival.
“We are restoring balance,” Hayton said. “In indigenous tradition theatre is performed to achieve something for the people and balance for the world in the natural environment. Theatre is a healing art form in which we can address very serious and difficult issues safely, and offer a larger healing for society.”
In artistic terms this can translate into powerful, sometimes revelatory juxtapositions. In Act III, Scene 4 of the 2004 Tlingit Macbeth, Banquo’s ghost haunted Macbeth while wearing a raven transformation mask. The mask was fabricated as a bird when closed, and opened to reveal Banquo’s face—spirit and flesh, emblems of both realms. What poetry was lost in the “translation” to plain English before translating to Tlingit was regained on the Tlingit side, a language Hayton said is full of imagery and metaphor.
It meant a lot to Hayton, who performed the role of Ross, to speak Tlingit publicly. “It was as if all of those years of loss and erosion of the culture had not occurred.”
For Starbard, Alaska Native theatre artists literally standing on thousands of years of storytelling tradition have nothing to prove.
“Our goal as Native artists and theatremakers is not to develop this ‘uncultured’ audience so they can come in and understand what a Western theatre is like. I think that’s the attitude taken sometimes,” she said, choosing her words with great care. “I’m proud of Native artists who are pushing back against this mindset. It’s not about how we can help our people adapt to the Western theatre, but how we can help Western theatre to be an even more dynamic and beautiful thing.”
For actor, storyteller, and playwright Moses Goods, the core beauty of Hawaiian culture lies in its most cherished values in the concept of Aloha (love, peace, and compassion) as articulated in an anagram by Hawaiian poet and philosopher Pilahi Paki.
“A equals akahai, meaning modesty; L stands for lokahi, or togetherness; O is for olu‘olu, to be pleasant; H for ha‘aha‘a—humility; and the second A is for ahonui, which is patience,” explains Goods.
He says that Hawaiians are extremely humble, almost to the point of meekness, and that the idea of self-promotion is foreign. But that’s the only to way to be, he explained: “If I don’t try to live inside Aloha then I can’t call myself a Hawaiian actor, versus an actor who happens to Hawaiian.”
Goods, who is half Native Hawaiian and half African American serves as HTY’s connection to Native communities, and speaks with elders and other advisers about delicate matters such as permissions to present cultural elements in HTY’s shows. Sometimes his report to Eric Johnson is that permission has been denied.
“Many times they’ll say no, we don’t want you to use this chant, but we’ll write you an original chant that says some of the same things,” Johnson explained. “It’s not ours to take, it’s theirs to give. As a non-indigenous producer, I have to recognize that at times Moses or another cultural practitioner making the work has much more responsibility on his shoulders than I do. We love this work, but it is not uncomplicated to produce.”
Kumu Kahua’s Harry Wong has occasionally adjusted the content of plays in deference to audience sensitivities. This happened recently in a production of Wild Birds, a drama by Eric Anderson set in 1839 in a mission school.
“The lead missionary mispronounces a word but everyone’s afraid to correct him,” Wong explained. “The children laugh and he realizes he’s saying it wrong. Pronouncing the word wrong advances the story.”
But one Hawaiian speaker in the audience was offended at the error and told Wong that he should not allow the word to be said incorrectly. “So we stopped,” Wong said. “The history of the repression is still so immediate. My own grandmother—they beat her feet when she spoke Hawaiian. I have to find that balance between telling a story theatrically and the feelings and memories of the people watching it.”
Art Rotch at Perseverance said he pays special attention to those kinds of tensions.
“Part of the opportunity here is that we can learn a lot about what theatre is, and the ways we can grow and change it,” explained Rotch. “It’s not just a matter of diverse performance styles, but the very ways in which plays are discovered and written down. Many of the ideas we’re exploring with Native writers and directors involve a theory of change. Playwriting can be catalytic of broader change if we work with intention.”
Katasse gives big props to Rotch and Perseverance for making a commitment to Native theatre, which he said is not an easy commitment to make. “This is the third year in a row with a world premiere, and another one’s planned for next year. It’s a gamble,” Katasse said. “We’re not bringing in Hamilton here!”
As a children’s theatre that reaches 120,000 students on six different islands, HTY is a “prime candidate to bring issues and discussion to young people and teachers,” Johnson said. Part of what guides his thematic choices is his conviction that in confronting an uncertain climate future “the children will need the support of the stories.”
Hawai‘i is the first state to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045; in 2016, 38 percent of energy generation was from renewables and its electricity was the most expensive in the U.S. HTY’s 2017-18 season, named “The Power of People,” features a show called Shocka: The Story of Energy & Hawaii.
“In creating work for 10-year-olds we have the opportunity to look forward in a really beautiful way,” Johnson said.
HTY is also collaborating on projects in Tasmania and Micronesia, island societies facing similar perils from warming, rising seas, acidic oceans, and drought. “From this very specific community, we can be and are connected globally in an exciting new way,” Johnson said.
Perseverance Theatre is also looking ahead. Next season will feature not only a new show featuring a new Native playwright and director, but also a completely non-Western creative team.
“We can create an aesthetic that’s really non-Western. I don’t think we know where it’s going to take us,” Rotch said, “but we need to do the journey.”
Frances Madeson is a writer based in New Mexico.