Jack Dalton's "Raven Returns", a monologue presented by its author that premiered on Friday night at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, seeks answers to big questions in the indigenous tradition of epic storytelling. Narrated from a Yup'ik point of view, the piece bridges cultural gaps and compassionately addresses anyone who wonders how to proceed in a world that no longer makes sense.
"Raven Returns" celebrates the human impulse to ask questions and embraces storytelling as a tried-and-true way to find answers.
Enhancing an ancient verbal art with contemporary ambient music and a movement score, Dalton treats his audience to traditional Yup'ik legends and "contemporary traditional" tales. Besides retelling Raven's encounters with legendary wildlife characters like Loon and Beaver, Dalton brings the title persona into current settings, relating what happened after Raven crashed into a glass window for the first time and how Raven found enlightenment at a New York City dumpster.
The first act spans mythic and historic time, moving from creation myths and animals stories to an account of the Great Death -- the 1918 flu epidemic that ravaged Native villages in Western Alaska -- and the coming of Christianity. The stories of the second act, anchored by a young man considering suicide and a little girl who hates berrypicking, are set in the present times colored by doubt. Can Raven, traditional knowledge and storytelling help people deal with the challenges of today's world?
The play answers a hopeful yes. Even Mrs. O'Brien, the white village teacher, remembers Raven's ancient language and sees the potential for collaboration between traditional and modern ways of knowing.
Dalton's sophisticated approach to language and narrative provides the piece with a strong foundation. His explorations of rhythmic movement, mime, symbolic gesture and physical characterization suggest tremendous potential. In particular, the image Raven crucified lingers long after he has left the stage.
Though the characters of his stories are not always clearly distinguishable in the first act, in the second act his physical work -- his facial expressions and embodiment of character -- became dynamic and precise. Dalton is a performer of promise who has something important to say.
Gabrielle Barnett teaches in the University of Alaska Anchorage's Department of Theatre and Dance.