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From Alaska to LA: Tlingit Playwright’s First Production Earns Prestigious Premiere

Tlingit playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse's first play was performed at Native Voices at the Autry and opens May 26 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Two years ago when Tlingit playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse chatted with a woman at a play workshop in Juneau, he had no idea he was speaking with Jean Bruce Scott, co-founder and producing executive director of Native Voices at the Autry, the country’s only equity theatre company dedicated to producing new plays by Native writers. Katasse was at the workshop as an actor, part of a staged reading and critique of a fellow Native playwright’s play. Katasse’s manner was friendly and disarming as he recalled the incident during a recent interview with ICTMN.

“She’s like, ‘Hi, I’m Jean from Native Voices at the Autry in Los Angeles.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah. So what, do you guys do plays?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah... Yeah we do plays.’ And we get chit-chatting and she asked if I’ve written a play. And I’m like, ‘Actually I did. I wrote a play last year. Sent it to a bunch of people, but no one responded. So I don’t think it’s very good.’”

That play, They Don’t Talk Back, was eventually chosen for the Native Voices at the Autry’s 2015-16 season. The “rolling premiere” began on March 4 at the company’s Los Angeles home in the Autry Museum where it played until March 20 and now continues with a May 26 opening at the respected La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.

Katasse’s youthful, easy-going conversation style, peppered with “likes,” as in “I’m like” and “She’s like,” belies a powerful ability to sculpt moments rich with unique Native characters. In an excerpt from the play published in the Juneau Empire last year, the character of the grandfather, Paul, relates a memory he has of his own Tlingit grandfather from when he was a boy.

Courtesy Frank Katasse

Tlingit playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse, whose play “They Don’t Talk Back” opens for an 11-day run at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego on May 26.

From the perspective of Paul, the grandfather in the play:

“I asked, ‘Who is “they” léelk’w? Are they white people? Do you say that cuz you want us to be like white people?’ I remember he stared at me for a long time. Never blinked. In the time he stared at me the moon reset itself. I remember feeling cold there for a minute. He stared at me long enough for maybe winter to come and go. Kinda hard to tell ya know, because when Grampa talked, time stood still.”

Katasse remembers how Scott encouraged him to submit his play to the company’s New Plays Festival, insisting he put a reminder in his phone.

“And she’s like, ‘Put it in your phone.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll remember.’ She’s like, ‘Just put it in your phone.’ I was like, ‘Oh-kay....’”

Sometime later his phone beeped reminding him to submit the play.

“And I’m like, oh, crap. So I sent in the play.”

The story is about a 17-year-old Tlingit boy named Nick, played by Román Zaragoza (Pima), whose parents are unable to care for him. His mother is a drug addict in prison and his father is an unstable Desert Storm veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nick is sent from Juneau, where he’s always lived, to stay with his grandparents, who reside in a remote Alaskan fishing village.

Nick’s culture shock of going from the “big city” of Juneau to an isolated fishing village of less than a thousand people evolves into a deeper exploration of identity and the importance of family. Nick initially clashes with his grandfather Paul, played by Duane Minard (Yurok, Piaute) and his cousin Edward, another grandson who’s also staying with Paul, played by Kholan Studi (Cherokee). Later, Nick’s father Tim, played by Brían Pagaq Wescott (Athabascan, Yup’ik) arrives unexpectedly and painfully recounts traumatic war experiences before leaving Nick’s life again.

Courtesy Craig Schwartz

Román Zaragoza Pima), playing 17-year-old Nick, arrives at the rural Alaskan home of his grandfather, Paul, played by Duane Minard Yurok, Piaute) in the Native Voices at the Autry Production of “They Don't Talk Back” by Tlingit playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse.

Nick grows up over the course of the play as he works on his grandfather’s fishing boat. He gains an appreciation for the love shared by his grandfather and his grandmother Linda, played by Jennifer Bobiwash (Ojibway) and becomes close friends with his cousin Edward.

Katasse remembers when Native Voices at the Autry told him his play had been chosen as one of ten finalists for inclusion in their New Plays Festival. From those ten plays, three would be chosen. But when he didn’t hear anything further after several months, he figured he didn’t make the cut.

Then, in March 2015, they called saying his play had been chosen. At first he thought this meant they were going to mention his play in their program.

“And then my wife was like, ‘No, I think they want you to go down there and work on your play for a week,’ which totally just flattened me out. I couldn’t believe it.”

The exposure his play received at the New Plays Festival won the attention of the La Jolla Playhouse, a prestigious theatre company in San Diego founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer. They asked if Native Voices at the Autry could do the show at their theatre and as a result a full-scale production with professional actors was mounted.

Courtesy Craig Schwartz

Nick’s itinerant father Tim, played by Brían Pagaq Wescott Athabascan, Yup'ik), an emotionally traumatized veteran of the first Gulf War, shares his pain with his parents, Paul Duane Minard) and Linda Jennifer Bobiwash, Ojibiwe).

After running from May 26 thru June 5 at the La Jolla Playhouse, the production, directed by Native Voices Producing Artistic Director Randy Reinholz (Choctaw), will move up to Juneau for a month in January, then to Hoonah and finally to Anchorage.

Although the story sounds somber, it’s interspersed with music, spoken word and dance. Everything from ancient Tlingit songs and stories to Tlingit hip-hop performed by Nick and Edward highlight the themes of a family and a culture both pulled apart by modern forces.

To Katasse, his play is a view into a world most people don’t even know exists, the world of rural Alaskan Villages, whose unique nature is evident even in the price residents pay for potato chips.

“Pringles are $7 or $8 a can. Everything is astronomically expensive. So the big treat is like, ‘All right you guys, go down to the store and get yourself a can of Pringles.’ Coming from Juneau it’s like, a can of Pringles, who cares? But everything’s relative and your internal clock starts changing when you go to these smaller villages and after a while it’s like, “Oh my god! We earned a can of Pringles! That’s awesome! We must have been really good!”

Courtesy Craig Schwartz

City Indian Nick Román Zaragoza) sits while his Rural Indian cousin Edward Kholan Studi, Cherokee) tells him about life in their remote Alaskan fishing village.

Katasse grew up in Juneau and often spent summers fishing with a friend in the rural town of Elfin Cove, which has a population of about 50. He knows the extremes of Alaska Native life from both ends of the spectrum. Through watching his play, our own internal, cultural clock subtly changes so that even simple joys become moments for celebration. Even eating a well-deserved potato chip.

The ancestors who don’t talk back in his story instead reverberate continuously through it like a babbling brook, reminding us the healing they offer is always available if we just know how to listen.