Ray Wilson rehearses for the new Perseverance Theatre production, "Battles of Fire and Water." The play is written by Dave Hunsaker, based on the book "Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka / Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804" by Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer. "There aren't any villains in it," Hunsaker said. "Both sides feel that Sitka was rightfully theirs in some way."
Roblin Gray Davis and Ryan Tresser rehearse for the new Perseverance Theatre production, "Battles of Fire and Water." The play is written by Dave Hunsaker, based on the book "Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka / Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804" by Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer. "There aren't any villains in it," Hunsaker said. "Both sides feel that Sitka was rightfully theirs in some way."
Story last updated at 3/4/2009 - 11:01 am
History books have been in the business of recording accurate accounts of battles for years, but they rarely tell the stories from the points of view of all parties involved. Not so in the new play at Perseverance Theatre, "Battles of Fire and Water." The play, set in 1804, is an account of the battles of Sitka fought between the Russians and Tlingits, and the story is told from both of their perspectives.
The play was written by Dave Hunsaker, a Juneau writer and actor. Its historical accuracy is thanks to a book published in 2008 by Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer called "Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka/Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 And 1804." The award-winning book contains firsthand accounts of the surrounding events of the battles.
The Dauenhauers translated newly available Russian documents such as letters, photographs and traveler accounts to accurately and personally portray the Russian point of view.
On the Tlingit side, they transcribed and translated recordings from the 1950s and 60s. The recordings were spoken accounts of the battles that had been passed on orally.
The Tlingit stories seemed to be very fresh in the minds of their tellers, Hunsaker said, as if they were being told about an event that happened last week. However, at the time the recordings were made, about 150 years had passed since the battles took place.
"It'd be a mistake to say that my play is based on the Dauenhauers' book," Hunsaker said. "It's sort of taken from it. The book is very scholarly and thorough. It's all stuff coming from the horse's mouth. What's so cool about it is the facts line up almost entirely between what the Russians and Tlingits said."
Hunsaker said that while the two sides seem to agree on what happened, they disagree on the reasons why. To portray this to the audience, he decided to use foreign languages as a tool to show both points of view. This also intensifies the alienation that often comes when not every word spoken can be understood by every person present.
Though the vast majority of the play is performed in English, about 10 percent of it is in either Russian or Tlingit.
Some scenes are performed twice in a row. The first time, the Tlingit point of view is spoken in English for the audience while the Russian characters on stage speak in Russian in the background, or vice versa. The second time, the languages will be reversed. Hunsaker described the language switch as a chess game in which both sides are equally balanced.
The actors have had the aid of language coaches to deliver their non-English lines properly.
"The trilingual aspect of the play brings the play to life in a way that would not be possible if it were only in English," said director Laurie McCants. "Language itself is expressive of culture and point of view. Hearing the contrast between the Russian language and the Tlingit language is beautiful, stimulating and provocative. You experience the clash and confluence of cultures in the sound of their languages as well as in the actual events and encounters."
The fact that characters' lines in the play are taken from firsthand accounts and performed in their own languages breathes with real life in a way that isn't often seen on stage, McCants said.
"What Dave has done is found their flesh and blood, their beating hearts, their passions, their pride, who these people really were, and he's placed them in connection, in conflict and in encounters with each other," McCants said. "Even if (the audience) doesn't understand the language, they can read the human drama that's going on between these two cultures."
McCants traveled to Juneau for this show from rural Pennsylvania, where about 30 years ago, she and "a bunch of other young idiots" started a theatre company known as the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. This was around the same time Perseverance Theatre was born. They found out about each other early in their history when some of McCants' colleagues came to Juneau to work with Perseverance and fell in love with it. The two companies both started doing theatre in unlikely places and both create plays about the places where they live, McCants said.
During the 2004-2005 season, McCants directed a play at Bloomsburg called "The Women of Lockerbie." The play shared some of the same challenges she now faces in "Battles of Fire and Water" in that it took a unique approach in portraying a recent historical event.
For "The Women of Lockerbie," McCants employed the set design services of Art Rotch, the current artistic director for Perseverance. They struck up a great artistic collaboration, McCants said.
When "Battles" became a possibility at Perseverance, Rotch thought of McCants as a director because of their previous work together and because of her experience with multilingual and cross-cultural theatre.
McCants believes another reason she was chosen as a director was because she is an outsider.
"With this particular story, they're taking on something that has been controversial and yet essential," McCants said. "An outsider's perspective is helpful in this because I can step between both worlds in a way that no one connected deeply and intimately with both worlds would be able to do."
Hunsaker's goal in writing the play was to portray each character as sympathetic, no matter which side of the battle they were on. Though the play is about a battle, there is not a single character in it that could be labeled as bloodthirsty or unfairly trying to carry out his wishes, Hunsaker said.
"There aren't any villains in it," Hunsaker said. "Both sides feel that Sitka was rightfully theirs in some way."
He described the play as possibly the most ambitious thing he's ever written.
"I've always thought this was an unjustly ignored piece of North American and Alaskan history," Hunsaker said. "I've paddled my kayak and hiked all over where this happened. There's something very strangely and mournfully compelling about Totem Park in Sitka, especially where the battle was."
Said McCants: "This is a story of great, horrible conflict, loss, and violence from both sides and to both sides, and here we are in a circle being able to share this story with a contemporary audience. This story lives in the mountains here, in the channels, in the forests. What this play does, that I really believe theatre is meant to do, is tell our stories to each other so that we can learn from each other and learn from those who went before us how to live in this world together."
"Battles of Fire and Water" opens Friday, March 6 at 7:30 p.m., with a preshow conversation with Dave Hunsaker at 7 p.m. The show runs through April 5. For schedules and ticket information, visit perseverancetheatre.org or call 463-TIXS.
Libby Sterling may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.