Project: ALAXSXA | ALASKA
Grantee: Bunnell Street Arts Center
Story and photographs provided by Asia Freeman
Additional photographs from Candace Blas

ALAXSXA | ALASKA (AA) wove puppetry, video installations, recorded interviews, and yuraq (Alaska Native Yup’ik drum and dance) in a collage of striking contemporary and historical encounters between indigenous Alaska Native communities and newcomers to the Great Land. The title of the piece includes the ancient indigenous Unangax tribal name for the rocky shores of the Alaska Peninsula: Alaxsxa (uh-LUK-shuh). This word is mirrored by and juxtaposed against the familiar, Anglicized version of this place name: “Alaska.” The title serves as a metaphor for the personal and cultural encounters that lie at the heart of this project. Performers Ryan Conarro and Gary Upay’aq Beaver (Central Yup’ik) – along with puppeteer Justin Perkins – used movement, stories, and puppetry to reveal a series of little-known historical narratives of collisions between people and cultures in Alaska. These histories, at times humorous or tragic, juxtapose against Beaver and Conarro’s own memories. Through storytelling and yuraq, they recounted their shared memories and unfolded their personal perspectives as “insider” (represented by Beaver as a 21st-center indigenous artist and culture-bearer) and “outsider” (Conarro, confronting the ramifications of his choice to move to Alaska and his presence as non-Native artist, journalist, and educator).

After a creation residency in March, 2017, and a brief tour to Homer, Anchorage and Kasiglook in September, 2017, Bunnell brought AA back for additional shows and tours that expanded AA’s audience in Homer, Nanwalek and Anchorage and communities in the Bering Straits region. AA back builds on Bunnell’s strategic efforts to engage more Alaskans in discussions about decolonization, and to place equity and inclusion alongside excellence in our artistic programs. The hallmark of Ping Chong Theater for almost three decades is facilitating plays, storytelling projects and community conversations around identity and cultural survival. AA engaged a diverse audience of k-12 students, teachers and community members in Anchorage, Nanwalek and Homer as well as outlying add-on villages. The juxtaposition of voices, theatrical techniques and provocative content was both portable and profound. From school gyms to proscenium stages, the play expanded and contracted to suit a variety of spaces and communities.

A new outgrowth of this project for Bunnell is working on a statewide scale with partners. This year we are thrilled to have partnered with Anchorage Concert Association (ACA), First Alaskans Institute (FAI) and Cook Inlet Housing Authority (CIHA) as our co-presenters in Anchorage. The impact of this networking effort meant a greater reach and a new, higher level of engagement of Indigenous audiences from Anchorage to Homer and Nawalek.

Each community had a uniquely powerful experience around AA. A buzz has really spread across the state. ACA presented one free show for youth from East High Yup’ik language immersion program and two ticketed shows of AA in the Sydney Laurence Theater. For the student post-show discussion, it was noted how courageously female Alaska Native East High students held the floor to boldly share prescriptions for decolonization.

AA came to Homer and Nanwalek for two free and two ticketed shows at the Mariner Theater with support from The CIRI Foundation and several local lodging donors. Nanwalek school welcomed the entire community for a 3:30 pm show, right after school let out. The effort to bring PCC was a collaboration of the Tribal Council (which sponsored flights) and the school, which created an atmosphere of respect and hospitality by welcoming everyone as a true community center. The show was followed by a very intense and open discussion about the effects of colonization that really get as close to truth and reconciliation as one could possibly imagine. Ryan Conarro and Gary Beaver established an atmosphere of trust and openness, beginning the conversation by asking “What surprised you in this performance?” To this invitation, Elders and Tribal leaders spoke. For 45 minutes, led by Mayor John Kvasnikoff villagers shared experiences of discrimination and violence, then gradually moved toward discussion about stress on families, alcoholism, intergenerational trauma, and new-found determination, resilience and pride. Everyone listened. Tears were shed. The Nanwalek dance troupe closed out the evening with a performance of traditional dances to their own music, electric Russian polka, a hybrid form of the Alutiiq people in this region, descendants of Sugpiaq and Russian colonizers. Nanwalek program supporters included Nanwalek School, Nanwalek Tribal Council and Chugachmiut, Inc.
Homer audiences tend to be mostly White, and while that was true at AA performances, it was encouraging to share AA with as a more diverse audience including many members of Seldovia, Nanwalek Village and Port Graham Village tribes. An atmosphere of welcome and safety pervaded all shows. Audiences were rapt. For Post-show discussions, most of the audience listened while Indigenous audience members shared deeply courageous and painful stories of trauma, addiction, recovery and hope. Many people cried together.

AA returned to Anchorage, and with support from FAI with CIHA, presented an additional free show during Elders and Youth with support at the Church of Love (COL, a center for community engagement at 36th and Spenard. The COL show was jam-packed, with audience even sitting on the edge of the stage! The timing of this project around AFN, was strategic. Elders and Youth drew Indigenous Alaskans from disparate rural regions. This fit well with the aim of this project for Bunnell, to strengthen community, cultivate dialogue and nurture healing around the lasting effects of Alaska’s colonization through this innovative play in partnership with community agencies and foundations. Anchorage supporters included CIHA/COL, Calista Corporation, TCF and Atwood Foundation.

We held a post-show discussion with every performance. Most people stayed. Primarily, Alaska Natives spoke while others listened.

Overall, the experience of AA in Alaska is two things: exciting and game-changing. Bunnell’s process of decolonization, which began a few years ago with Emily Johnson (Yup’ik, Soldotna) and her land acknowledgement project, SHORE: Tuggeght. Bunnell’s efforts toward equity and inclusion continued through our touring exhibit, Decolonizing Alaska and realized a new peak with AA. We are now engaging deeply-rooted, diverse partners and reaching new audiences. Systemic change is in the works. True decolonization begins in our homes and schools, in how we tell our stories, and how we meet each other.


“We Can”

Impression from Nita Y. Rearden, Project Participant

Throughout history there has been miscommunication between cultures. The play presented understanding of how miscommunication portrayed between cultural views. It was difficult at times to comprehend, but the story is the truth about Alaska’s people. We can help one another to learn to respect each other and to help in producing solutions to trauma and illnesses of alcohol. Culturally, solutions are not top down. They are dealt with at the same level of groups working together.

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“Community Building”

Impression from Sezy Gerow-Hanson, Project Participant

I wanted to take a moment to share with The CIRI Foundation our gratitude for your support of ALAXSXA|ALASKA. Cook Inlet Housing was likewise a sponsoring entity for the production. It takes many such sources and funding supports to bring these types of groundbreaking productions to Alaska. This particular show, A|A, was truly an immersive cross cultural production that shared an important story with a wide audience as it toured large and small communities across the state. It offered two perspectives and the opportunity post-show for some deep conversation to promote better understanding and community building. We are proud to have a small part in supporting this type of community building opportunity and we thank you for your support of this show and its important message. Together we can help build a stronger, more understanding community.

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“Healing through ALAXSXA”

Impression from Martha Crow, Project Participant

First of all, I’d like to thank Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer for sponsoring ALAXSXA|ALASKA. The play had a profound impact with the realization how much resilience Indigenous Americans endured displayed with colonization.

This play’s hilariously healing brought tears and laughter. Both healing inherited traumatic experiences due to colonization.

Thank you to The CIRI Foundation and Bunnell Street Arts Center.

“Empowered Audiences”

Impression from Candace Blas, Project Participant

It was an honor to host rehearsals for ALAXSXA|ALASKA and to present the show at Cook Inlet Housing Authority’s Church of Love. Due to a last minute venue change, COL was able to host the A|A performance as part of Alaska Federation of Natives’ 2018 Elders and Youth Conference. We were not sure what the turnout for the event would be because of the last minute venue change, but thirty minutes to show time, the people started to arrive, and they didn’t stop! We pulled every chair in the building to create seating for everyone and were quickly at capacity! The show began with a packed house and a hush settled over the audience as we were all immediately transfixed by the atmospheric nature of the show.

The opportunity to host A|A at the COL brought a diverse audience to the venue. I would say that the majority of the 120+ audience members were Alaska Native participants from AFN. Something that I noticed in the post-show discussion was that the Alaska Native participants in the group did the majority of the talking and the non-Native people participated through listening. I would say that the information that the show revealed about cross-cultural encounters in Alaska established this reflective dynamic in the non-Native members and empowered the Alaska Native audience members to speak and share their truth.

I would welcome A|A back to the Church of Love and any related performance that perpetuates Alaska Native culture. It was a pleasure to partner with Bunnell Street Art Center and the Anchorage Concert Association to help sponsor the 2018 tour of A|A.