An interesting thing happened at the end of the opening night performance of "Our Voices Will be Heard" in the Sydney Laurence Theatre. After the applause and the bows, after the actors left the stage and the house lights went up, no one in the audience got up to leave. For most of a minute no one moved. It seemed as if they were waiting for something else or immobilized with pondering what they had just seen.
"Voices," the first play by Anchorage author Vera Starbard, is not the kind of entertainment many people expect when they go to the theater or turn on the television. But it is certainly engrossing.
At the beginning of the play, we are in a Tlingit clan house in the 1800s. The propriety-minded matriarch of the clan, Shanaa (Jane Lind), is happily celebrating the naming of her two new grandchildren by her daughters, gentle and complacent Wanadoo (Leeta Gray) and lively, bossy Litaa (Erika Stone). The scene is long and conversational, but one immediately senses a Shakespearean set-up.
The action immediately jumps forward several years. The babies Kutaan (Erin Tripp) and Sagu (Xoodzi) are now in their teens, affectionate toward each other but each hiding the turmoil caused by being sexually abused by their uncle Jinahaa (Dylan Carusona). But the play is not about sexual abuse per se. Rather, it's about what happens to the family when abuse is revealed.
Litaa insists that her husband, Ta (Robert Vestal), a village leader, take action and is shocked to find out that he's known about the matter for some time. Shanaa, who is particularly fond of her son, accuses Litaa of making trouble and bringing disgrace to the clan.
In a cast of excellent actors, many with national stage and screen credits, Stone's performance in what is essentially the leading role is particularly outstanding. She's as angry with herself as she is with Jinahaa.
"How could I not see it?" she cries when the facts are known.
Later, she's not above guilt-tripping her daughter, telling her to go to a social gathering even though a laundry job remains to be done.
"I will do all the work," she snaps shortly before cursing Kutaan in frustration, then lamenting over being separated from people she loves and despairing over her situation. "I feel as hollow as this wash basin," she says.
The story of Litaa and Kutaan is interspersed with a narrative about "Wolverine Woman," presented by a storyteller (Jack Dalton) who addresses the audience as someone participating in a modern naming ceremony.
"It's a story you haven't heard before," he assures us, and that's literally true since the playwright has created it along with the rest of the script. The story recounts how a creature who appeared human by day and became a wolverine at night was driven from her village, learning to survive hunger and cold through anger and determination, and becoming the unsociable, solitary creature that now terrifies even bears.
It's also metaphysically true in that while abuse and ostracism is a story "everyone" in Alaska knows, too often it's not heard. There is a tendency to react with silence and wallpapering.
"I just want a peaceful village," says helpless Ta.
"It will all be as it was. We can be a family again," insists Pollyannish Wanadoo.
To see it so frankly laid out in a live play is one way to make sure the story is heard, whether we like it or not.
"If you're looking for happiness in a story, stop," the storyteller advises. And indeed, the 90-minute show is a heavy one.
And yet there is something affirming in how Starbard and director Larissa FastHorse, who has been part of its creation from the beginning, have shaped the drama. The stubborn, angry mother initially confronts the powers that have let her child be hurt out of fear and reacts to protect her. In the process, Kutaan becomes as angry and solitary as her mother, but she also gains what might be called agency, and, when it becomes her turn to confront the same powers, she does so out of a sense of justice.
The historical, cultural context, the Wolverine Woman legend and the solemn, formal language give "Voices" a mythic feel, almost like the declamations of an ancient bard. But as evidenced by the response of the audience in Anchorage, similar to what was reported from the run in Juneau, the message plainly strikes a contemporary chord.
OUR VOICES WILL BE HEARD will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 28 at Sydney Laurence Theatre. Tickets are available at centertix.net. The Anchorage presentation by Perseverance Theatre is attended by several other events, including:
HEALING THROUGH STORYTELLING, a post-show open discussion with the playwright and director, 7 p.m. Sunday at the Sydney Laurence Theatre.
VOICES OF THE ARTISTS, a panel discussion with Vera Starbard, Jack Dalton and Irene Bedard about the changing world of Alaska Native performance and art, 7 p.m. Monday at the Anchorage Museum Auditorium.
TALES FOR A DARK WINTER, staged readings of Alaska Native plays, 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Sydney Laurence Theatre, a pay-as-you-can event.
FRY BREAD FRIDAY, a fry bread reception with the playwright for ticketed audience members, presented by First Alaskans Institute and the Huna Heritage Foundation prior to the 7:30 p.m. performance on Friday in the lobby of the Sydney Laurence Theatre.
HEALING THROUGH STORYTELLING, a post-show open discussion, following the performance on Friday in the Sydney Laurence Theatre.
HEALING THROUGH STORYTELLING WORKSHOP, led by Vera Starbard, 1 p.m. Saturday at the Anchorage Public Library Room in The Mall at Sears.
STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, a reading of David Holthouse's play, also about sex abuse, by the cast of the upcoming UAA production, 2 p.m. Saturday in Sydney Laurence Theatre.