Alaxsxa is a place name that that many Alaskans may not know, but they all live there. It’s the Unangax tribe’s ancient name for Alaska, and it serves as a metaphor for a play coming to the Bunnell Street Arts Center this weekend. Alaxsxa uses history, puppetry, Yup’ik dancing and personal stories to weave together the complex relationships of the people and cultures living in state.
Ryan Conarro moved to Nome after college in 2001 to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Conarro thought he was coming to rural western Alaskan to help people, that it would be a memorable experience in an exotic part of the world.
“This sort of idealistic view that I was going to come make some positive impact on a community that had some real issues, that can’t and won’t be solved by someone who doesn’t know anything in a few weeks,” he recalled, “and some of the moments that were harsh wake-up moments like, ‘Oh this is actually a place with complexity.’”
By 2009, Conarro was teaching drama near Bethel in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, and that’s where he met Gary Beaver, a Yup’ik song and dance instructor from the nearby village of Kasigluk.
Throughout their work, they collaborated plenty. While reflecting back on his time there a few years later, Conarro began realizing they both have vastly different relationships with the state, and that through years of cultural collisions, Alaska has become a complicated place.
Conarro, who is now a performer with New York City-based theater group Ping Chong + Company, teamed up with Beaver to tell that story in Alaxsxa.
“We kind of sit opposite of each other, sometimes literally on stage. Gary is someone who is indigenous and from here, who’s family and roots are from here, and I am someone who moved here in my adult life and sort of chose very consciously to call it home,” Conarro explained. “We are comparing those two orientations and what the ramifications of those are.”
The cast of three also includes puppet designer Justin Perkins, and they explore cultural interactions from Danish explorer Vitus Bering’s contact with Alaska Natives in the early 1700s to Beaver’s experience seeing white people for the first time on TV as a kid.
The show premiered in Anchorage last month before it went on to Bethel and Beaver’s home village. He notes he was nervous to perform in front of family and friends, but Beaver says the response was powerful.
“It’s pretty awesome. There were tears, tears of joy and encouragement, and even children back home, they were in awe back home,” he said, grinning behind his glasses. “I even heard a couple say, ‘I want to do what he’s doing,’ but in Yupik, you know.”
Beaver grew up learning Yup’ik dancing and singing, and he says the dances he uses in the show are a blend of songs created by elders back home and new songs created just for Alaxsxa. He closes the show with a new song sung in both Yup’ik and English.
“It’s about going down there on stage and performing, to move your arms around, that things are changing, but we’re not going to stop yuraqing, eskimo dancing,” Beaver said.
You can catch three showings of Alaxsxa at the Bunnell Street Arts Center Friday and Saturday evening at 7 p.m. and at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon.