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Ping Chong + Company's new multimedia work spotlights the 49th state
Gary Upay'aq Beaver was raised in a remote village in Alaska called Kasigluk, population 560. It's home to the Yup'ik tribe, indigenous to the region. And yet in that remote landscape, surrounded by tundra, Beaver grew up wanting to be on stage. Unfortunately, there is no theatre in Kasigluk. "We don't have good opportunities like other people do, like in New York," Beaver says. "In the village, you have to take care of your family, you go out hunting." So he left his home to pursue his dream, and this month he finally gets his wish as the star of Alaxsxa | Alaska, a documentary theatre piece about the state, which runs at La MaMa through October 29.
Written and directed by veteran multidisciplinary theatre-maker Ping Chong and Ryan Conarro, who also costars, Alaxsxa | Alaska was inspired by the 12 years the latter spent living in "The Last Frontier." When Conarro mentioned his time there, Chong exclaimed, "I've never been to Alaska. Let's do a show in Alaska!" Because Chong is interested in different cultures and the world of the "other," he was excited to explore the northernmost state in the U.S.
"I think people have a very basic idea of Alaska," says Conarro. "They think that the whole place is this frigid, arctic land where everyone is in a parka all the time." Alaxsxa | Alaska delves into the state's complicated history and remarkable diversity. Using video, traditional yuraq dance, and bunraku puppetry, the multimedia show recounts how Russian settlers first stumbled onto the land, already populated by Native Americans, and how the state was eventually sold to the U.S. without the consent of the locals. A particularly surprising fact: "The last battle of the Civil War took place in Alaska," says Chong. "The South sent a warship to destroy the New England shipping fleet in Alaska, and they succeeded." (Unbeknownst to the Confederates, the war was already over, so it was a short-lived victory.)
Stories told by Conarro, an "outsider" from New York, and Beaver, a native, are interwoven into the narrative. The two originally met when Conarro did a stint as a teaching artist at a school where Beaver was leading a native dance group. As their friendship blossomed, they compared their vastly different experiences of Alaska: Conarro as someone who chose to come to the state and settled in the city of Juneau, and Beaver, who was born and bred in an impoverished and isolated rural area. "There's not a lot of jobs in my village," says Beaver. "It's hard to have a job and make money." Inhabitants of small Alaskan villages like Kasigluk survive on a subsistence lifestyle, forced to depend on hunting and fishing since they've long been neglected by the government.
The show also features testimony from 40 or so Alaskans that Chong and Conarro interviewed. Altogether it's an examination of a state that, for many mainland Americans, is barely an afterthought. "There's a lot of variation in what it means to be Alaskan," says Conarro. "What that identifier means is really complex and nuanced in such a large state with so many different indigenous and outside cultures represented in the population."
Prior to the New York engagement, the cast and creative team did a five-town tour of the show in Alaska. The reaction from locals, both natives and transplants, was overwhelmingly positive (so much so that another Alaskan tour is in the works). "Everyone has a moment when they say, 'Oh, this is someone who's in a position that's like mine," says Conarro. "And at other moments, they're looking across the boundaries to the other person, and hopefully gaining a more three-dimensional perspective about who that other is and what their experience is."
One notable stop on that first Alaskan tour was Kasigluk. The team loaded into three four-seater planes and traveled to the village to do the show in a gym. That performance turned Beaver into something of a local celebrity. "They'd give me a handshake, they would take my picture, they would reenact the scenes in front of me," he says happily. "And some of even them said, 'I want to do what you're doing.'"
Top image: Gary Beaver in Alaxsxa | Alaska. Photo by Asia Bauzon.