By Heidi Zemach for SCN –
The Winter Bear, a travelling play about suicide by former Alaska Writer Laureate Anne Hanley from Fairbanks Alaska, reached an audience of about 300-350 Wednesday, April 22 during daytime performances for Seward Middle School and High School students, and an evening turnout of another 45-55 community members.
A handful of teenagers returned Wednesday evening to partake in the community potlatch at the high school prior to the second performance—and stuck around to see the play once more.
It was so quiet throughout the daytime school performance you could hear a pin drop, said principal actor Brian Wescott, who played the elder Sidney Huntington, a real man in his 90s and also the play’s inspiration. He felt their silence was testament to their intense listening.
The students we spoke with after seeing the play gave it pretty good reviews. One said she particularly enjoyed the group of fur-covered animal spirits, the Raven, the Lynx, the Wolf. Another enjoyed the dramatic character acting, and what he learned about Alaska Native Culture. A third liked the back stories of abuse that were revealed throughout the course of the play, explaining each character’s thought processes and behavior. This writer appreciated the feminist angle portrayed by Huntington’s granddaughter Miranda, a magistrate and activist, and her difficulties being understood by her state and those in her own village as she tried to set a legal precedent for Restorative Justice for Alaska Natives. Miranda also pointed out some of the rather paternalistic/sexist beliefs imbedded in certain Koyukuk beliefs, such as that the women can’t handle or eat bear meat, or follow a Lynx—her personal animal spirit.
Above all, though, this was a play about suicide, and breaking its taboos by discussing it honestly and openly. It looked squarely at some of the hopelessness and other frequent causes of suicide particularly in rural Alaska, including alcoholism, while sending the positive message that individuals have the power to change their life’s destiny simply by making the choice to do so. It also spoke to the help that can come by learning from the experience of one’s elders, or at least when someone who understands and cares, takes the time to show you the way.
Prior to the performance, Deb Bond, a local representative to the Alaska Suicide Prevention Task Force who had invited the Winter Bear to perform in Seward, spoke briefly about losing her 16-year old son to suicide, and described the hopeless feelings that depression can engender, having frequently experienced it herself in the years following Jeffrey’s death. Bond, SeaView Community Services, Seward Prevention Coalition and local pastors all have come together to collectively try to step up local suicide prevention efforts after four suicide deaths occurred here during the first four months of this year, including that of two teen boys.
One audience member, an AVTEC student from Nome had read Huntington’s book, Shadows on the Koyukuk, and knew members of his family. He wanted to see how the much-respected Alaskan elder would be portrayed. He also hoped to feel familiar themes of his Native culture, and most of all to share in the potlatch. While it didn’t have fry-bread, or some of the other foods of potlatches he was accustomed to back home, it did have some delicious baked Halibut, supplied by the Seafood Locker, along with several other home-cooked dishes. Afterward, he, and several others in the audience said they were especially impressed with the acting of the 25-year old Fairbanks actor Thomas Petrie, a theater major at UAF who played Duane “Shadow” David, the troubled teenager tasked with living with an elder in a rural cabin in the woods, rather than going to prison for allegedly torching the Sidney Huntington center. Shadow’s character was powerful as he changed from an angry, self-destructive video-game-addicted young man, into a brave hunter of the fearsome Winter Bear, and took the elder’s place addressing the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.
Following the play, Barbara Franks, from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, who also had lost a teenage son to suicide, and a husband to Cancer, asked audience members to stay behind and pose for a photo for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s FaceBook page. Cast and audience members held up numbers totaling 1,130,192 million, the number of people who called for help on the prevention hotline in 2013. It’s the first time in its history that the number topped a million callers. Their courage in asking for help is an act to be celebrated, she said. It’s certainly a better way to look at suicide, she said, than to focus on the statistics of how many people kill themselves, how old or what sex they were, or what ethnic group they came from.
The Alaska Careline is 1-877-266-4357 or text ‘4help’ to 839863 Tues-Sat from 3 pm-11 pm