Ping Chong + Company’s show ALAXSXA | ALASKA subverts an overused Western storyline of people as the central power over everything to instead usher in the throes of our vast and unpredictable universe. The result is a fascinating 85 minutes of a non -Book of Genesis view of the world.
The ancient people of Alaxsxa (uh-LUK-shuh), including the Yup’ik tribe, continue to live in what is now called Alaska. Due to the ill effects of foreign intervention, they have faced terrible struggles to retain their indigenous cultural practices. When left to manage their own affairs, these native communities, survive long winters through the hunting of local wildlife; they kill animals sparingly in order to eat. The Russians or Americans, depending on the period of history, feeling no ties to the local people or the land, decimate the animal population for profit (for fur, oil, even using Alaska as a nuclear test site), greatly diminishing the native communities’ chances to live off the local land.
ALAXSXA | ALASKA features Gary Upay’aq Beaver, Justin Perkins, and Ryan Conarro. Collaborators with Ping Chong on scene development, they work marvels to employ the multimedia approach to theater that Chong is known for. To begin the play, Beaver dances to traditional Yup’ik music, while wearing a ceremonial mask. Verse flashes on the screen behind him.
Someone is coming. They are coming here. My people see, my people look. The current is bringing someone here. My people see, my people look. A boat is bringing someone here.
In one of many visually striking scenes, the ocean roars across all three screens to cover the back wall. Center stage, Perkins, who is a puppeteer, holds up two beautifully crafted puppets; one is a large ship and the other a kayak. The ship has the Russians sailing to Alaska for the first time and the kayak carries natives who welcome the Russians.
Conarro, a Kass’aq, or white guy, tells the audience why he moves to Alaska:
You’re 21 years old, just out of college. You sign yourself up for a volunteer position at a social service radio station up north among…’the Eskimos.’ It’ll be exotic, you think. A ‘year off,’ you call it. Off the grid. Off the plan. Off the map.
You’ll be a news reporter. You’ll serve the people, you say. Well, you’ll collect some memories to take back with you. No: you’ll serve the people.
AIRPLANE DANCE 1: You can remember flying to Alaska…
Collection of, or the hoarding of, anything is called into question in ALAXSXA | ALASKA – even the cerebral act of collecting memories. Conarro quickly stops thinking of Alaska as off the map (implying that “exotic” means his experience of the people in Alaska are not relevant as the people “back home” to his finding personal success) and attempts to learn its various languages. He hopes to be given a Yup’ik name. When he is finally offered one by local children, it is (English translation) Storyteller. He is at first pleased by this name but soon realizes no outsider, particularly a Kass’aq, could give that name the respect it deserves. The Yup’ik people are born storytellers. He reluctantly rejects the name.
Perkins inserts news of injustices, being done around the world similar to in Alaska, with the same punch line: “but that is another story.” While the Russian and American nations, as empires, are certainly under scrutiny here, no region of the world holds court for good or for evil.
Even hue, saturation, and brightness are in on the conspiracy to relieve human categorization at the center of things. In response to a sad story about a fox being killed, a color, not a person or a puppet, takes center stage.
ALAXSXA | ALASKA makes no pretense of optimism regarding the fate of the human race in general, but it is not pessimistic in its conclusion either. It approaches the future of our species as a question. Comic relief is in abundance throughout the play. For example, out of nowhere comes a charming dance scene choreographed much like a 1940s musical. Beaver, Perkins and Conarro tap dance together while adorning large black mustaches.
Whether inferences to NYC theater group productions are coincidental or by design, ALAXSXA | ALASKA carries with it a message of gratitude for local theater inspiration. Perkins and Conarro rolling around the stage in their chairs as they enact the American purchase of Alaska from Russia calls to mind Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo. ALAXSXA | ALASKA picks up the tracks left by the Civilians’ powerful production, The Great Immensity , to continue a somber warning of the dire outcome for humankind to remain indifferent to the rapid extinction of animals. Beaver, a Yup’ik who grew up in Alaska, gifted at representing animal perspectives, ended the play by singing a song in Yup’ik and English while drumming.
ALAXSXA | ALASKA shows at La Mama from October 12 to October 29.
 Arguendo premiered at the Public Theater in New York City in September of 2013.
 The Great immensity premiered at the Public Theater in New York City in April of 2014.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Heather Waters.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.