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Boarding school play evokes powerful reaction from Native former students

Alaska Dispatch News

Mike Dunham  October 14, 2015

Jack Dalton’s play “Assimilation” made a powerful impression when it premiered in Anchorage five years ago. Dalton, best known for his comic interpretations of Native lore, had written a blistering indictment of the boarding school era with roles reversed. In his telling, a vicious Native headmaster punishes white children for not being sufficiently Native.

Dalton has said he wrote the play to promote healing, “However brutal the play might be. This is a history the entire state must address.”

When “Assimilation” was restaged in 2013, panel discussions were held to allow those who went through the system and others to speak about their experiences and offer support. After one performance, Mentasta Ahtna Chief Fred John said, “I have never cried for white boys before, but I can tell you, I knew each character in this play.”

In mid-September, Dalton launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised $15,000 to take the play on tour around Alaska. The money was raised quickly and the show opened in Juneau on Oct. 9. It is now playing in Anchorage during the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention and will travel to Barrow, Fairbanks, Valdez, Homer, Seldovia and Soldotna. Dates in other towns are still being set up.

The Anchorage run began on Tuesday night with a presentation in the Dena’ina Center as part of the Youth and Elders Convention. Dalton warned a few attendees with small children there would be profanity and some intense content. In one scene, a boy is beaten with a stick; in another, a student is punished by being forced to kneel in ice water. The school principal — a headmistress in this production — constantly belittles her charges. “Lose your old tongue, the sooner the better, you little heathens… Whites can never be real.”

“It’s not a play to enjoy,” Dalton told the audience before it began. “We want to use it as a catalyst.”

Thirty people stayed after the play to discuss it in a talking circle facilitated by Larry Merculieff and Libby Roderick. Several people spoke about their experiences in boarding schools, good and bad. They shared personal stories of institutional and domestic abuse and the necessity of exposing past traumas and forgiving. Many thanked the playwright and performers for their efforts.

Louise Leonard, who plays the headmistress in this production, said the talking circles in Anchorage and, earlier, in Juneau were “the most important part of the play. We never really talk about what happened. It is something hidden in the closet and we must heal from it.”

“I wasn’t expecting to be so affected by it,” said Jenae Morgan, one of the younger members of the audience. “I heard stories from my grandparents and parents, but it didn’t hit me until tonight.”

Her words reflected the sentiments of Fred John after the 2013 revival. “Everybody in Alaska should see this play,” he said. “It is time to heal this wound and others.”

Admission to the Anchorage shows was advertised as $10, free for Alaska Federation of Natives delegates. But on Tuesday night, Dalton announced his fundraising effort had been successful enough that admission would be “free for everybody.”

Talking circle sessions similar to the one on Tuesday will follow each performance.

“Assimilation” will be presented at 7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday through Oct. 18 at the Hilton Anchorage. Admission is free, though donations are welcome. Additional performances will take place Oct. 21-23 at the North Slope Healthy Living Summit in Barrow, Nov. 7 in Valdez, Nov. 20-21 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Nov. 27-28 at  Bunnell Street Art Center in Homer, Nov. 29 in Seldovia and Nov. 30 in Soldotna. 


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