In front of a solemn audience at Kenai Peninsula College, actress Louise Leonard turned her back on a young man as he was struck repeatedly in the stomach, speaking with the cold detachment of someone who doesn’t care.
But, having attended boarding schools for Alaska Natives as a child, she did care. Acting like she didn’t was one of the biggest challenges Leonard said she faced while on tour with “Assimilation,” a play written and directed by Jack Dalton of Hooper Bay.
First presented in 2010, “Assimilation” has been touring the state for several weeks and was presented to an audience at the college’s McLane Commons on Monday night. Set in an alternate present day in which Western civilization has fallen to pieces and Alaska Natives have assumed control, the play reverses their historical roles to focus on themes of humanity, awareness and empathy through the lens of a boarding school for young white men.
Modeled on personal accounts Dalton collected over the years, the play highlights some of the systematic assimilation practices carried out in boarding schools upon Alaska Natives. Language deletion, severe punishment, segregation and coping mechanisms are all represented.
“This story is not a Native story. This story is a story of Alaska,” Dalton said as he introduced the play. “It is a story that we all must heal from.”
Leonard said she had misgivings about signing on to the tour because she was loathe to remind herself of her own boarding school experience. Making enough contact to create a realistic sound during scenes where she pretended to beat the other actors was difficult, she said.
As a third grader, Leonard was made into an example while at boarding school, a fact she said she didn’t realize at the time because, knowing only her native language, she didn’t understand why she was being punished. What she remembers is the metal-edged ruler she was beaten with, she said.
Dalton said his reason for switching the roles of his white and Alaska Native characters was twofold. First, it helped reduce potential triggers for viewers like Leonard, whose experiences may have been similar to the play’s dark content. Second, he said placing white characters in roles of oppression helped non-Native audience members see the play’s content through the eyes of a minority. This oppression was reinforced throughout the play as the white characters were told again and again that they would “never become real human beings.”
“So often in… recent history in Western civilization, is that a dominant culture point of view ends up creating dominant culture solutions, and we’ve just seen time and time again that those solutions just aren’t working,” Dalton said. “And so one of the most wonderful compliments that we got for the play was a white male counselor who goes out into villages said in one of the (healing) circles that he realized watching the play… he never had looked through minority issues without looking through the eyes of white male privilege.”
Dalton said feedback for his play has been mostly positive, with the exception of people who haven’t actually seen it in its entirety. He said he has heard second hand that over the course of the tour, some people have walked out of the play, citing disbelief that it depicted actual events. Those who have watched the entire production however, have given him positive feedback.
The group’s appearance at KPC marked the twelfth community to witness the play during its tour. A discussion during which viewers could express their reactions and thoughts about their experience followed the performance.
Dalton said healing, more than anything, is the point of his play. It is a gateway to allow people to open up and talk about a dark part of American history that is still affecting people today.
“The play just is a beginning of the conversation,” he said. “The beginning of any conversation is important, but one shouldn’t look at the beginning of the conversation (as) being the conversation… What we found is how effective it is at changing people’s perspectives enough that they don’t come to the conversation with the traditional ways of thinking… What’s been amazing is when people do approach the conversation differently how much deeper the conversation gets, which is the important part of healing this history.”
Learning Center Director Diane Taylor echoed these sentiments, saying the play is important for the entire community to experience.
“I think it can be helpful because this is, this is the story,” she said. “This is what it is. And if it isn’t talked about it’s like it didn’t exist, and it did exist and people are still carrying that hurt and the point is really to heal, and the only way you can do that is to start talking about it so you can kind of resolve that and hopefully not repeat history.”
Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart, coordinator for the school’s Alaska Native and Rural Student Services, said the play helped her make some sense of the way her relatives have acted in the past.
“I liked how he set it up, that this is our history. It’s Alaska history,” she said. “…So it made it okay for everybody to hear it, and set it up really nice and drew everybody in that this is something that we just need to talk about. It kind of puts your mindset into that time period I think, and maybe what our parents have gone through and why elders talk to us sometimes the way they do and why they say things the way they do.”
Dalton emphasized that the play is meant to evoke empathy and understanding. Leonard said another of her fears in participating was that she would unintentionally make white audience members feel bad or guilty. When the play culminated in its final, climactic scene, Leonard approached non-Native audience members sitting in the front rows. Tears in her eyes, she cupped their faces gently in her hands and whispered in her native language: “I am sorry, please forgive me.”
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