Alaska Indigenous theater production transforms classic holiday tale in ‘Tlingit Christmas Carol’

A zoom screen grab of actors in the new virtual production of 'A Tlingit Christmas Carol.'
A screen shot from the first stave of “A Tlingit Christmas Carol” highlights a mostly Indigenous cast, including (left) Erin Tripp (Tlingit) playing Roberta Cratchit, (top) Isabelle Star Leblank (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota) as Freda, and Ed Littlefield (Tlingit), as E.B. Scrooge. (Perseverance Theatre)

An Alaska-based theater company is putting a Tlingit twist on a holiday classic.

From the opening carol, viewers will notice a particular Southeast Alaska flavor to “A Tlingit Christmas Carol.”

Vera Starbard is the playwright-in-residence for Perseverance Theatre and adapted the story.

“If you enjoy a “Christmas Carol” like I do … you’ll recognize the story,” Starbard said. “It definitely plot-wise has a lot of the things — obviously not exactly the same, but — you’ll definitely recognize the story.”

The production is five roughly 20-minute episodes, or “staves,” livestreamed through Perseverance Theatre’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, each Friday until Christmas Day, Dec. 25. It will remain available to stream until Russian Orthodox Christmas in January 7.

As the first episode begins, viewers and theater patrons will recognize the story. Scrooge is a successful CEO of a Native corporation subsidiary in an unnamed town. He’s also a boarding school survivor – though Starbard said that element is intentionally subtle.

“I didn’t want to obsess on that, because I think ultimately, I didn’t experience that, and I don’t have the right to tell you that story without someone who’s been there,” she said. “But I did want to allow a look into that, and a look into why our Scrooge is the way he is.”

Scrooge hates Christmas — even when his niece, Freda, played by Isabelle Star Leblank, tries to invite him over to celebrate Russian Orthodox Christmas.

The character of E.B. Scrooge is played by Ed Littlefield, who’s Tlingit, and also serves as the music director, Starbard said.

“He’s a wonderful Tlingit musician who just makes this absolute magic,” she said. “The songs started out actually, very sort of ‘Western Christmas’ … they started out a little bit more like what you think of as Christmas music. And the further you get into the staves, there are more trinkets, and there’s more delicate language, and there’s more delicate sounding drums and rattles. And there is just such a magical thing to hear the familiar noises and a new kind of medium.”

The performance also gives subtle nods to present day, particularly the use of video-conferencing, which has become ubiquitous since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Madeline Sayet, the production’s critically-acclaimed stage director, is Mohegan. She’s likely best known to viewers for “Where We Belong,” a solo performance written in response to her time in the United Kingdom studying Shakespeare.

The largely Native cast and crew includes representatives from a variety of tribes and nations — Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, Osage, Métis Cree and more.

“We’re all bringing our culture and our values into how we’re creating this in the first place,” Starbard said. “And yes, that’s reflected in the story itself, as an Indigenous person who wrote it. But you see it in the acting, and the choices that are made for the music.”

Starbard said Perseverance is a leader within the theater world for the number of Native shows it produces.

“Perseverance Theater has definitely been trying to bring in Native culture, Native people, Native talent more and more and since 2014, 2015,” Starbard said. “One of their primary goals was to actually reflect the community. And it gets this reputation as a very Native-friendly theater, because by and large, Western theater is not very open or friendly to Native people.”

Starbard said access to other theater artists and communities generated by this kind of project also creates opportunities to change the industry.

“I love exploring and idigenizing the process of theater. You have this very westernized process of ‘Here’s how you build the play.’ If you can go in there and say, ‘As Indigenous people who’ve been doing performing arts for thousands and thousands of years on this land, how have we built plays?

How we get these performing arts pieces — you start to actually attack how you get to the finished product of a play people are seeing. It comes out very different. And the perspective someone like (Madeline Sayet) will bring in — we’re not going to do this like everybody else.”

Juneau-based Perseverance offers performances in Juneau and Anchorage — and in the time of coronavirus — virtually.

Starbard said the theater industry largely shuttered nationwide to prevent the possibility of spreading COVID-19. The shutdown left a lot of theater artists and writers out of work, but sparked a boom in online productions.

“If you have a whole bunch of creative people in the whole industry, they immediately, without hesitation went into, ‘OK, now what do we look like?’ Because we’re not going to stop creating. We’re not going to stop putting out art.”

Starbard said going virtual also opened up opportunities to offer productions to remote villages.

“We need to keep working on the Zoom, or whatever technology comes out of it, because the accessibility of what we’re doing right now is so much more than what we’ve been able to do before,” she said. “I can now say, welcome to ‘Christmas Carol.’ You’re going to be able to watch this whenever you want, from wherever you are, literally anywhere in the world. And that’s exciting for me.”