On a recent snowy morning, I had the opportunity to interview Art Rotch and Shona Strauser, the Artistic Director and Education Director at Perseverance Theatre. These fabulous individuals have been building momentum for three upcoming productions: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, local writer Ishmael Hope’s Defenders of Alaska Native Country and Marcus Gardley’s The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry.
Joanne: What drew you to these three pieces?
Art: They are all great stories that are worthy of being told… These three plays have connections around the intertwined experiences of Native American and African American people. There’s an attempt to go deeper with our audience by explicitly connecting the dots between these plays as something that has to do with our place.
Shona: There’s also something interesting about the writing styles of these three playwrights. They all write in a lot of poetry. Many contemporary plays have quick, sharp dialogue and these dialogues are just a little bit more beautiful to listen to.
Art: They’re writing for the stage and you’re right; they’re all published poets. I don’t know about [Lorraine’s] musical background, but certainly Ishmael and Marcus both sing in a culturally specific way. Marcus was raised in a black choir and Ishmael sings Tlingit songs, so there’s a musicality to the language that I also think works here.
Joanne: What do you feel is unique about producing these pieces in Alaska?
Art: I remember reading Marcus’ play a couple of drafts ago and thinking this is the kind of play that Perseverance can work on successfully, because it’s large and historic and has big, profound ideas like who can own what and who gets to live where. Those are ideas that I think can be contained in Alaska… Movement and migration feel very Alaskan to me.
Shona: Displaced feels very Alaskan to me. On the edge, on the outskirts. The not-fitting-in element. The need for seclusion–not in a bad way, but in a contemplative way.
Art: There’s also possibility here that I think is harder to see elsewhere. I think it’s actually possible to effect change here, because it’s a small population and it’s a fast-evolving society. There’s not as many people to convince and I think it’s sort of a given that it’s going to be different in a generation than it is now. That opens people up to possibility.
Shona: [Juneau is] still very separated by race and identity… There’s still a lot of work to be done here, and I think even more so than places down south. That makes it more crucial, more important, that this kind of work happens up here. There’s more of a need… [As a theatre] we provide access in a very great way: it’s right there in front of you. You hear it. You see it. These plays are written beautifully and then when you see them performed, it just spurs good conversations.
Joanne: What do you hope will be gained by producing this series of plays?
Art: I think the themes around migration, land and identity are really powerful and everything Marcus writes is allegorical. His play about the 1927 flood is about Katrina. His play about lynchings is about segregation in the South today… Those epic, historical subjects really work here and I think those themes connect to us. Alaska is unique and so, Ishmael’s story (Defenders of Alaska Native Country) is unique, but we’re not alone in those issues and they are American as well as Alaskan.
Shona: If we do more diverse plays, we have more diverse audiences and performers and actors and artists and that’s great. That’s important.