By Yuko Kurahashi
Ping Chong + Company’s new multimedia work ALAXSXA/ALASKA premiered at the Harper Studio Theater at the University of Alaska, Anchorage on Aug. 31, 2017.
The title ALAXSXA/ALASKA is two different words for Alaska: Alaxsxa, an ancient word of the Unangax tribe, meaning “the land against the sea breaks,” was changed by Russian traders in the eighteenth century to Alaska. The juxtaposition of the two names suggests social, political, and cultural encounters and clashes between the natives and new settlers.
Chong began to develop ALAXSXA/ ALASKA in 2015 in collaboration with Ryan Conarro. In 2016, Chong and Conarro completed four weeks of statewide Alaska travel to conduct research and interviews. During the workshop processes in the same year, Perkins and Beaver joined the creative team.
Integrating multiple theatre languages such as puppetry, video projections, movement, and music within a small performing area with a table in the center and two stools, ALAXSXA/ALASKA uses three performers to portray past encounters between indigenous Alaskan Native communities and newcomers.
Throughout the hour and 30-minute performance, Chong’s co-director Ryan Conarro, Gary Upay’aq Beaver and Justin Perkins theatrically explore the encounters between “insiders” and “outsiders” through the use of personal accounts and key historical events.
Though an outsider, Conarro has lived for an extended amount of time in Alaska, first as a volunteer at a social service radio station and later as a teaching artist with the Alaska State Council on the Arts. In ALAXSXA/ALASKA, Conarro chronicles his fresh-out-of-college expectation to “serve the people” and “collect some memories to take back” with him to a much deeper sense of connection to the indigenous people and culture.
Gary Upay’aq Beaver is from a tribe of Central Yup’ik. In ALAXSXA/ALASKA, Beaver shares his journey from growing up in a small Native community, becoming alcoholic, and then after his recovery becoming an accomplished yurag (traditional dance) performer, who serves as a leader of the Kasigluk dance group. He has also taught traditional dance and music at schools throughout southwest Alaska. At the beginning and end of the performance, Beaver plays the Yup’ik drum and dances.
The historical narrative includes the arrival of the Russian ship St. Peter and resulting fur trade; the purchase of Alaska orchestrated by the United States in 1865; a Congressional proposal to resettle Jewish refugees between 1938 and 1940 in Alaska; the Project Chariot, a proposal to construct an artificial harbor at Cape Thomson using “controlled nuclear explosions;” the construction of the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline in 1959; and the catastrophic Exon Valdez spill in 1989.
These accounts, which are narrated comically and satirically by the “professor,” (Perkins), provide historical contexts to the personal narratives of Conarro and Beaver.
To complement these two performers, indigenous people’s life is shown using puppets constructed and manipulated by Justin Perkins, a professional puppet maker and puppeteer. In one scene, a 22-inch puppet made of wood and paper mache hunts a seal under the ice. In a more contemporary scene, a puppet of a modern Alaskan Native “hunts” groceries. In addition, Perkins creates a mesmerizing scene about Kristallnacht by using shadow play.
The show ends with playing the recorded interviews conducted by Conarro with people from different parts of Alaska accompanied by photos donated by the interviewees. These interviewees address the importance of documenting their cultural heritage and their hope for future generations in spite of challenges and difficulties they have faced.
Sound Designer Lucy Peckham used an eclectic mix of music to create the atmosphere of Alaska. During the recorded interviews, Peckham used a spellbinding music piece that provides an ambiance of tranquility, prayer, and hope for the future.
Katherine Freer’s video and projection design included a collage of abstract shapes, archival photographs of mushroom clouds, the Trans Alaska Oil Pipelines, and Alaskans (contributed by the interviewees) to serve as poetic and rhythmical movement to compliment to the performers’ movement. Lighting designer Marika Kent emphasizes the “feeling” and “texture” for different scenes, using different colors and levels of intensity.
Costume designer Stephanie Ma designed jumpsuits for the performers as the basic costume. In order to demonstrate the contrast between the insider and outsider, Conarro and Perkins’s jumpsuit have the applique of “kassa’k brothers & co” while Beaver’s suit has the symbol for Yup’ik culture—three circles with a dot inside.
In addition to designing costumes, Ma also served as a coordinator between the production and Native Alaskan craftspeople. Philip Charrette, a mask maker from the Alaska Native Heritage Center created mask, based on a historic Yup’ik mask that foretells the coming of outsiders to Alaska. The “Qaspeqs,”a traditional Yup’ik jacket worn by Beaver when he dances, was made by Loni Hoover, a Yup’ik stitcher.
ALAXSXA/ASASKA is the first piece of Chong+Company’s new project, the “State Series,” which will address the histories of people in each state of the United States. By using the same stools and table, each of the pieces will share not only a thematic thread but also a material thread through these “repurposed” structural elements.
Ping Chong + Company’s ALAXSXA/ALASKA at the Harper Studio Theater at the University of Alaska, Anchorage ran from Aug. 30 through Sept. 3, 2017. The production toured different areas in Alaska in September 2017 and will be staged at La MaMa in New York City from Oct. 12 through Oct. 29, 2017.