2016 is a big year for the La Jolla Playhouse and diverse cultures. Productions like Guards at the Taj, John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons and the upcoming drama, The Last Tiger in Haiti, take a look at a variety of societies from around the world.
The 2016/2017 resident theatre company, Native Voices at the Autry, is contributing to the mixture at the Playhouse by telling stories from Native American, Alaska Native and First Nations artists. For the inaugural drama of the company’s season, They Don’t Talk Back, the group tells a tale that is universal in its message about human connection.
Set in a Tlingit fishing village in Southeast Alaska during 1994, a rebellious teen, Nick (Roman Zaragoza), is forced to visit his traditional grandparents. He feels like an outsider because he is half white and half Native American.
Nick is not excited about spending time with his intimidating grandpa, Paul Sr. (Duane Minard), internally strong grandma, Linda (Jennifer Bobiwash), and friendly cousin, Edward (Kholan Studi). However, as Nick spends more time with his relatives, he starts to become closer to them.
Playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse devotes almost an equal amount of time on conversations and monologues. Interactions between the four main characters have enjoyable situational comedic and cultural clashes.
Speaking often in slang and wearing Americanized clothing from E.B. Brooks, Nick at first seems embarrassed by the lifestyle of his kinsfolk. Despite being an easily frustrated person, Katasse and Zaragoza realistically portray how Nick becomes more absorbed with Aboriginal American ways of living.
Paul and Linda amusingly try to communicate with Nick in different ways. The former talks to Nick by keeping his emotions guarded, while Linda comes across as more open and friendly. Minard and Bobiwash depict them as a couple with contradictions, yet they both can be equally vulnerable, loving and tough.
Though Katasse’s verbal exchanges are very natural, his transitions to extended speeches are occasionally oddly handled. An early example is when Paul explains the meaning of the title of the play. Minard makes the anecdote captivating, but the account occurs shortly after a shocking incident. It’s almost as if the play is then set on pause so Paul can share a memory from his past.
Other solo moments are integrated more organically into the narrative. One hilarious account, that was met with applause on opening night, was Edward discussing a wrestling match between The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. Studi, who is the grandson of Oscar-nominee, Jack Albertson, and son of Wes Studi, is eminently likable revealing why the match had a positive impact on his life.
Director, Randy Reinholz, wants viewers to feel like they are also experiencing Nick’s journey in Alaska. He is aided at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre by John Nobori’s immersive audio, R. Craig Wolf’s mystical lighting, Tom Ontiveros’s nature friendly projections, and Ed Littlefield’s intense music.
There is a charming mellowness to Act 1, which is made up of a series of vignettes. Little time is spent setting up stakes or throwing in a major conflict. Even the final scene before intermission is used for comic relief instead of setting up tension for the remainder of the evening.
In Act II, a lot of the fun and games stop after the introduction of Tim (Brian Pagaq Wescott). While he is not featured much onstage, Wescott’s cameo disturbingly depicts how poor mental health can impact an individual.
As the tone becomes more serious, there are some corny moments in the climax. A couple of lines feel a little too on the nose and several moments should be trimmed to make the dark part of the night have a bigger impact.
Regardless of the issues, the epilogue is emotionally rewarding. Katasse’s theme about the importance of family is embraced so beautifully in the final scene, that many might shed a tear.
Even with the sometimes strangely handled monologues and a climax that tugs too hard on the heartstrings, They Don’t Talk Back is a richly moving coming of age story. The production marks a solid beginning for Native Voices’ season in San Diego.