Theater Review: ‘The Day We Were Born’ brings Alaskans to life
Elizabeth Hurd Published: April 13, 2016
Barrow, Alaska, is the northernmost city in Alaska. Many Americans in the lower 48 know Barrow as the location of the airplane accident costing the lives of Wiley Post and Will Rogers. Also, we might remember the extensive media coverage of three whales trapped in the ice in 1988. Due to the frantic efforts of area residents and others, two of the whales that were freed survived. The third whale died.
“The Day We Were Born” chronicles the lives of two boys, born on the day the whales were freed and growing up amid the hardships of Alaskan life today. They are In̋upiat, and they have occupied this area for untold years. The two boys, cousins, are Qi and Benny, and their path is filled with conflicts, cultural as well as universal. The play is set primarily in Alaska where people shiver on unsettled ice, but moves to Iraq where people melt on unsettled sand.
Their story is told by actress turned playwright Jaisy Bates. “The Day We Were Born” is presented at the annual Native American Play Festival brought to us by the Oklahoma City Theatre Company. The theatre location for this production is at the state fairgrounds in the Oklahoma Contemporary Art Gallery.
Directed by Devon Twohatchet, “The Day We Were Born” is cast entirely with Native American actors. Many may be familiar with actress Tiffany Tuggle Rogers who plays Caribou Belly Woman and she functions as the chorus in the play. Her fellow actors may be unfamiliar to audiences, but they present the play with purity. Mosiah BlueCloud is Benny, Dillon Griffitts is Qi, and they portray the two boys struggling with life, much as the whales did on the occasion of their birth. Jana Butler-Rhoads is Raven, the official narrator of “The Day We Were Born” and grandmother to Caribou Belly Woman. Matt C. Cross is Uncle to Qi, probably father to Benny and he also plays Emil, a teenage crony of the boys. Maya Torralba is Qi’s mother, and her attitude is as musical as her song. Russ TallChief is the soldier or ‘Lost Spirit’ that figures prominently to everyone else in the cast.
The In̋upiat people have a long storytelling tradition as do all of the Inuit peoples north of the Arctic Circle. Without a written language the oral tradition is important in Native American cultures. Curiously, director Twohatchet chose to have the narrator (Raven) read from a book rather than tell the story traditionally. Although granddaughter Caribou Belly Woman occupies a similar role in telling the story as Raven, she does not use a book. The soldier as the ‘Lost Spirit’ definitely interacts as a character in the play; however, he sometimes steps out of character narrating with a book. This makes the production part traditional play and part reader’s theatre.
Individually, all of the performances have moments of charisma. Rogers, with her experience, gives a lovely performance as Caribou Belly Woman. Dillon Griffitts as Qi, shows us the angry young man with more reason for rage. Mosiah BlueCloud as Benny is a solid, talented actor, very expressive. Maya Torralba as Qi’s mother communicates with both her song and soul, mesmerizing the audience.
The set, designed by Troy Scott is
evocative of the ice where the In̋upiat peoples live. The effect is broken by the wood floor. The distinctive lighting on the white set is courtesy of Avolites, Elektralite and Toucan. Oklahoma City Theatre Company is grateful for their contribution to this production.
The story is tragic, but the distractions from the erratic structure of the play and the narration choices may disengage the viewer. For further information about “The Day We Were Born” and all of the events in the Native American Play Festival, contact the Civic Center Box Office at (405) 297-2264 or visit okctheatrecompany.org. “The Day We Were Born” will show again this weekend at the state fairgrounds. The curtain is at 8:00 pm.