Kenai Performers are reviving “The Ballad of Kenai” for the play’s 50th anniversary. The historic play explores Kenai’s change and progress through the years, beginning with the area’s original inhabitants, the Dena’ina.
Don Nickel is one of the founding members of Kenai Performers and was an original cast member of “The Ballad of Kenai.” He said the play has evolved since it was first conceived in the late 1960s by director Lance Petersen and his mother Jean McMaster, who was a dance instructor and choreographed the show. Bob Richardson composed the original music, and came on to conduct the orchestra for the 50th anniversary revival. Nickel said the upcoming show will be the fifth time “The Ballad of Kenai” has been performed.
“This show is a much richer show, although the older productions were great shows, it has evolved into a richer play,” Nickel said.
Nickel is playing grandfather Joe. He and the character of the grandson are the only people in the show that are in the present. All of the other characters explore the history of Kenai, from the stories of the Dena’ina creation of man to the oil boom days.
“It’s a historical story with dancing and music,” Nickel said. “The music really forwards the plot.”
Terri Zopf-Schoessler will be performing in the play as Ms. Kitty. Despite starring and participating in many local theater productions over the last 30 years, it’s Zopf-Schoessler’s first time performing in the play. She said it’s important for people to come and see the show because the story addresses questions the community is still asking.
“Sometimes progress is good,” Zopf-Schoessler said. “Sometimes it brings more problems.”
Zopf-Schoessler said the play is slightly different than the original production, and that more effort was put into representing the perspective of the Dena’ina people.
Peter Kalifornsky, a local Dena’ina man who wrote and shared stories of the Dena’ina people and language, acted as a cultural liaison in the original production. For the 50th anniversary revival, Bunny Swan, the Dena’ina Cultural Ambassador for the Kenaitze Tribe, worked as a Dena’ina consultant on the project. Swan is also acting in the play as a Dena’ina woman named Ashana.
“I’m honored to be in Peter’s role (as a cultural ambassador),” Swan said. “Over the years the play has really evolved and grown. It’s the story of Kenai, so it’s really neat.”
In the original productions in 1975, 1981 and 1991, Marge O’Reilly played the part of Gert, the Kenai taxi driver. Now, her daughter, Margaret Gilman, is taking on the role of Gert in the upcoming revival show.
“It’s really a powerful thing to be able to play a part that meant so much to her,” Gilman said.
Gilman was able to see her mother perform in every show she participated in. She said when it came time for her to audition for the part, she found she already had the part memorized from when she used to help her mother learn her lines. The upcoming show is really a family affair for Gilman, who is performing alongside her brother and sister.
“The Ballad of Kenai” will be available for one weekend only at 7 p.m., Nov. 15-17 and 2 p.m., Nov. 17 and 18 at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School. General admission is $26. Children, seniors and military are $21.