Juneau Empire – ‘Warriors’ a portrait of Alaska Natives in combat

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There are 10 characters and five actors in Dave Hunsaker’s new play, “Warriors,” but the number of Alaskan voices that echo through Hunsaker’s lines is far greater than these 10 roles suggest. The play, which explores the experiences of Alaska Natives in combat, is reflective of conversations, interviews and stories Hunsaker has gathered over the past four decades as a writer in Alaska.

“The idea of doing something about Alaska Native soldiers was really interesting to me and has been for many years,” Hunsaker said, prior to a run-through of the play last week. “I didn’t know what exactly it was going to be then, it sort of evolved the more research I did and the more people I talked to — I talked to a lot of people.”

The play explores global themes of conflict and connection through a specific regional and cultural lens: Alaska Native soldiers. It’s a big, difficult topic, one Hunsaker presents through individual stories both real and imagined.

The action shifts between two main settings: Attu island in 1943 and Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003. In each place, two Alaskan soldiers build a friendship in the midst of combat while holding a third soldier prisoner – a Japanese captive in Attu and an Iraqi in Baghdad.

“We’ve got a war of defending one’s land and a war of being part of an invading army,” Hunsaker said. “It is really specific to those two wars but the themes are a lot larger.”

Interwoven between the two settings are more impressionistic narrative portions that bring in stories of Alaska Native warriors from past.

“We tell the story of K’alyaan, which is a fairly famous story. We tell a lesser known story of Gidák, who was an Aleut marksman working for the Russians at that time and got sort of tragically caught up in that war, the second battle of Sitka. We tell the story of a woman whose name I haven’t been able to locate … who killed a customs inspector in retaliation (for her brother’s death) to try to balance it. And the story of Laura Wright, who was famous as a parka maker but who was a member of the Alaska guard during WWII, who patrolled a little stretch of the Chukchi Sea with her .30-06 and a dog team.”

Original music by Tlingit composer Ed Littlefield of Sitka highlights the connections between all these time periods and reinforces the cultural framework for Hunsaker’s material. For example, a traditional song that accompanies one of the old stories might recur in one of the play’s more modern scenes with different instrumentation, such as trumpet or guitar.

“He’s written what sound like quite traditional songs, but then adds things to them,” Hunsaker said. “He’s a wonderful percussionist, and a trumpeter and violinist, and he plays all those instruments.”

The two men also worked together for Hunsaker’s previous play, “Battles of Fire and Water,” in which Littlefield played K’alyaan.

In “Warriors,” Hunsaker’s sixth play for Perseverance, four Alaska Native actors portray the real-life warriors of the older stories, as well as the two sets of soldiers in Attu and Baghdad. A fifth actor plays the prisoner in both places.

Hunsaker said he knew he was asking a lot of his actors with this script, which is part of the reason he opted to direct it himself.

“It’s such a difficult play. It’s such an emotional play with a lot of sorrow and anger in it — it has a fair amount of humor too — but this cast is just the most extraordinary bunch of people I’ve ever worked with I think,” Hunsaker said. “They take such good care of each other, I think because it is so hard, and it is such a difficult subject.”

The two male soldiers in Attu are played by Charles McKenry and Corey Joseph, both of whom are new to the Perseverance stage. Tlingit actor McKenry is from Juneau and Joseph, who is Yup’ik, is from Kwigillingok. McKenry and Joseph play two members of Castner’s Cutthroats, a real-life elite scouting team assigned to help drive the Japanese soldiers out of the Aleutians in the early 1940s.

The two female soldiers in Baghdad are played by Tlingit actor Katrina Hotch, of Klukwan, and Mary Lou Rock, an Inupiaq actor from Shaktoolik. Hotch, who played Daalnéix in “Battles of Fire and Water” and also is a veteran, plays a world-weary soldier who tries to help her fellow soldier and friend, Polly (Rock) toughen up against the doubt that threatens to make her lose focus.

The fifth actor, Takahiro Yamamoto, originally of Shizuoka, Japan, plays a Japanese prisoner being held by McKenry and Joseph on Attu, and an Iraqi prisoner held by Hotch and Rock in Baghdad. In both settings, Yamamoto’s character highlights the idea of the underlying connections between soldiers on opposite sides and the blurriness of the lines that divide them. The idea of connectedness is reinforced through music — such as when Yamamoto’s character sings a traditional Japanese lament, an idea familiar to his captors, when he thinks he’s about to be killed. This theme is more explicitly brought into focus when McKenry’s character says, after looking from Joseph to Yamamoto, “You could be brothers!”

Like other aspects of the play, this line of dialogue is a direct reflection of stories Hunsaker heard from Alaska Native veterans about Vietnam.

“A lot of people, especially from up North, had a rough time in Vietnam shooting at people who looked so much like they did,” Hunsaker said. “Some of the Vietnamese also noticed that — ‘same-same’ is an expression I heard from somebody.”

Hunsaker’s informal research for the play has been going on since the 1970s, when he had an opportunity to interview Alaska Native elders about their World War II experiences.

“Years ago, I worked out on the Aleutians, and I did a whole bunch of interviews with Aleut elders. At that time, a lot of them were people who had lived through WWII and a bunch of the men had been in the Alaska Scouts. And I interviewed all the people who were still alive who were from Attu that had been taken to Japan. There were still five or six of them in 1977. It was vivid to me.”

Over the years, he also had many conversations with members of Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, a connection forged through his friendship with Tlingit elder Paul Jackson, a Korean war veteran and a member of Hunsaker’s adopted clan, the Lukaax.ádi.

Among the questions these conversations inspired is one Hunsaker has been mulling over for years: Why do a hugely disproportionate number of Alaska Natives enlist in military service? According to the US military, Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups.

“(Katrina Hotch) is from Klukwan, and she said every single guy who was of eligible age in Klukwan went to Vietnam,” Hunsaker said. “Twenty-eight guys from Hoonah went to Vietnam. The numbers are kind of staggering. So those are some interesting questions to ask.”

A closely related question: What drives people to take up arms against each other? In some cases in the play, those motivations are fairly clear – Tlingit warrior Shaa Shakee’s desire to avenge her brother’s unjust death, or K’alyaan’s rage in defending his homeland of Sitka against the Russian invaders with a hammer. But things are less straightforward in the scenes depicting World War II or Iraq, where ideas of “homeland” are complicated and loyalties less defined.

Hunsaker said for him the play isn’t an attempt to provide answers, but to explore the complex territory that lies at the places where cultures intersect, and to honor those whose stories it tells.

“Ultimately, this play is about people that are called upon to do a hard thing — and do it,” he said.