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In new Alaska play, a man battles the Native corporation in his own head

Alec Shamas (Joker) and Frank Henry Katasse as William in “William Inc.,” a new play from Perseverance Theatre. (Photo by Akiko Nishijima Rotch)

Well fellahs, you all know why we're here. We're here to vote on whether ol' Billy here should crack a cold Schlitz.

— Shadow, "William, Inc."

William's life is in turmoil. The therapist is overloaded with alcohol-addicted clients and paperwork, his marriage is teetering and members of the Native corporation board of directors in his mind are pushing him back toward the bottle.

In Perseverance Theatre's "William, Inc.," which runs until March 11 at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, Anchorage playwright Lucas Rowley incorporates aspects of his Inupiaq heritage, Freudian psychology, antic humor and an intriguingly off-center view of the warring forces within.

In order to cope with his high-pressure life, William has created the William J. Erickson Individual Native Corporation Board Inside His Head. He may insist that he's the executive director and, therefore, the boss, but two of the board members – the trickster/Raven incarnation called Joker and the cunning, destructive Shadow — are bent on wrecking his hard-fought-for sobriety. Their only counter is Traditional Woman, who urges a return to William's roots and Native spiritual practices.

"When was the last time you prayed, William? The traditional way."
— Traditional Woman

Despite the intriguing concept of a one-man mental corporation and the antics of its increasingly fractious board of archetypes, the play, Rowley says, "is really about alcoholism and using culture to heal alcoholism."

Rowley, 44, wrote about what he knew. Although the play isn't a biography, he said, it does mirror aspects of his life. Rowley is a mental health counselor who used to specialize in drug and alcohol addiction; William counsels alcoholics. Both men have young children. William's marriage is falling apart; Rowley is divorced. Both have battled alcoholism.

Rowley was born and raised down the highway in Homer. Drinking "was just a popular thing in small-town Alaska."

His turnabout came after he headed Outside.

"I was in tribal school in New Mexico and learned about some cultural things down there, spiritual stuff," that stuck with him. Then, when he became a father for the first time 13 years ago, "I made my decision to stop drinking."

Recovery is changing your lifestyle, changing your whole identity. It's about getting healthy and growing, not just maintaining. It's a lot of work, but well worth it.
— William, to a client

The board concept in "William, Inc." derives partly from Rowley's own membership in regional corporation CIRI ("I'm not very active in it") but more so from a training internship at a nonprofit corporation "where I got to sit at board meetings, got a copy of Robert's Rules (of Order)."

Frank Henry Katasse as William, Erin Tripp as Traditional Woman, Alec Shamas as Joker and James Sullivan as Shadow in “William Inc.,” a new play from Perseverance Theatre. (Photo by Akiko Nishijima Rotch)

The play itself was born in 2009, in the Alaska Native Heritage Center's Alaska Native Playwrights Project. It's since seen numerous revisions, readings and workshops, including in New Mexico and at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez.

Art Rotch, Perseverance's artistic director, found "William, Inc." through the Native Playwrights Project.

Perseverance is giving the play its world premiere, Rotch said on the phone from Douglas, because "It's a very important and serious subject, but also very quirky and funny. It's an original voice. "

It also, he said, "fits in that world where we want to give voice to an Alaskan artist. We wanted to have the world premiere of a play by an Alaska Native artist with Native actors playing Native characters and with a Native director and Natives on the creative team."

William is played by Tlingit actor Frank Henry Kaash Katasse. Alaska Native or Native American actors portray William's family members, clients and the two Native board members. Randy Reinholz, a Choctaw director, playwright and professor, came up from San Diego to direct.

Erin Tripp as Traditional Woman and Alec Shamas as Joker in “William Inc.,” a new play from Perseverance Theatre. (Photo by Akiko Nishijima Rotch)

Set designer Akiko Nishijima Rotch, Art's wife, isn't Native, but she contributed what Rowley considers a "brilliant" concept: a giant sandbox, a plus-sized version of the sand tray with toys and miniature figures that counselors incorporate in therapy.

"Since William is going in and out of this dream," Rowley said, "she designed it so the actors were pieces in the sandbox."

His reference to a "dream" sparks a question: Are William and the members of the board actually interacting in a dimension not our own?

That could be. On the other hand, William isn't the only one who sees the board members; his wife, Cindy, encounters both Shadow and Joker.

Oh, I get it. You're the imaginary friends, right? The ones I catch him talking to all the time?
— Cindy

So, what's reality and what isn't?

Rowley isn't saying, exactly.

"I wanted some of the details to be a mystery (regarding) where everything was," he said.

In whatever setting — dream, alternate dimension or reality — he concludes: "It's mainly a healing story. I try to work in positive ways. I think it's a healing story that needs to be told."

WILLIAM, INC. will be presented until March 11 in the Sydney Laurence Theatre at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, 621 W. Sixth Ave. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. March 2-3 and 7- 10, and 4 p.m. March 4 and 11. Tickets are available at Centertix or by calling 236-ARTS.

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