The arts community has been engaged in recent years in a trenchantly political conversation about (as the Hamilton lyric puts it) “Who tells your story?”
That’s also a question playwright Gab Cody grapples with in her new work, Inside Passage, as she seeks to uncover a story from her own family history that takes her down a path fraught with representational peril.
The story she seeks to tell, you see, is of her efforts to locate a pair of Native American siblings, Eddie and Sharon, who had joined Cody’s family as foster children during her early childhood in Alaska. When Cody’s parents’ marriage fell apart and her mother decided to return to California, Eddie and Sharon were removed from her family and sent to live with relatives in the Tlingit community. Four decades later, Cody set out to find out what happened to them, documenting both her preparations and the search itself on film. Inside Passage, the first manifestation of the results of that documentation, is a hybrid of theater and film that seeks to capture both Cody’s emotional, psychological, and geographical journey as she reconnects with these long-lost temporary members of her family, and Eddie and Sharon’s harrowing struggles with poverty, abuse, and neglect as indigenous children in the foster system.
Trepidation seems to haunt Cody at every phase of her journey, and rightly so. In the first place, going into the project she could have no certainty that she would be able to locate Sharon or Eddie, and no idea how they might respond to her overtures if and when she did. To exorcize that anxiety, Cody and director Sam Turich wrote and filmed a series of wry “preenactments” of potentially awkward first encounters between Gab and her long-lost siblings, with actors from the ensemble standing in for herself and for Sharon and Eddie, producing a film version of the kind of scene that plays out in your head when you imaginatively prerehearse a much-anticipated event.
In the second place, Cody’s task of telling this particular family story is complicated and vexed by the gulf between her own life experience, as a privileged white woman with social and geographical mobility, and the highly circumscribed experience of her Tlingit foster siblings. She addresses this trepidation with humor and theatrical flair, by turning the tables on herself and assigning her own self-representation to her diverse cast of actors, who bounce the role of “Gab Cody” between themselves like a volleyball. By ceding the embodiment of her voice to others, Cody acknowledges her own hesitancy to appropriate the stories of people whose experience she can never fully know: the (deliberately confusing) fracturing of the writer/storyteller into many bodies and voices both destabilizes her authority and empowers non-dominant voices to guide the narrative. It’s a move that seeks to cede this story, which Cody seems to fear is not fully hers to tell, back to the subjects to whom it belongs.
The question of “ownership” of the privilege to tell a story is also foregrounded in an interlude in which Tlingit actor Skyler Ray-Benson Davis interrupts Cody’s narrative to share a legend about Jeet, a boy who climbs a cliff to save his village. At the end of that tale, Davis expresses his thanks to the Wooshketaan Tlingit clan of Hoonah for lending him their story to share, a gesture that reminds us that a) stories have value as cultural currency, and b) there is a material and ethical difference between borrowing a story to share, and stealing one to sell.
The play consists of thirty-three short acts, announced with descriptive subtitles like “In Which Memory is a Black Hole” or “There Will be Goats.” The acts themselves represent a hodgepodge of aesthetic styles and approaches to storytelling, ranging from direct address to the audience to fictional reenactment of scenes, with just about everything in between, including songs, dance breaks, documentary footage, and stalking bears (as well as “talking” bears!). The effect is disorienting in a form-follows-content kind of way: the interpersonal and geographic disorientation that emerges out of Cody’s sleuthing into her past finds its structural expression in a kaleidoscopic fragmenting of actors and characters, film and live event, and scenes from the past and present. The play mixes in humorous metatheatrical commentary and audience interaction as well: at one point ensemble member Kyle Haden, “planted” in the audience, receives a phone call and tells the person on the other end of the line that “this play is really confusing, everyone is playing the same character”; at other moments, the performance is paused to give audience members the opportunity to view Cody’s family photographs up close.
Cody and Turich also devote a good portion of Inside Passage to humorously staging assumptions and misconceptions about Alaska and its indigenous populations. Grizzly bears play a prominent role in the piece, both as a running joke and as a symbol of the way Alaska is marked by a proximity of wilderness to human habitation. The spare arctic landscape of Alaska is evoked not only by the blank empty white canvas that forms the backdrop to Rob Long’s stylishly filmed “preenactments,” but also by Kellan Andersen’s predominantly white set, on which a movable dock-like structure serves as platform for much of the action and for screens that alternately glow like northern lights or come alive with projected images, titles, and documentary footage. The ensemble – which includes Laurie Klatscher, Shammen McCune, Kelsey Robinson, and John Shepard in addition to Davis and Haden – inhabits the deadpan tone and casual address of Cody’s writing with facility. Rachel Vallozzi’s costumes, which never let us forget that Alaska is a very cold place, contribute an additional layer of oddballity to this thoroughly eccentric production.
In the end, despite its wry and quirky tone, Inside Passage left me with a feeling of melancholy and loss: the kaleidoscopic narrative structure seemed designed to remind us that we can never know the full truth of our own stories, let alone the stories of others, and that getting at something that feels like the whole story is always much more complicated and vexed than we ever imagine it will be.