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 Mānoawas 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.”
Read the article at AMERICAN THEATRE MAGAZINE