This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.
When Cathy Tagnak Rexford first saw an Alaska Native actor on stage, she said, “I can do that too.”
She didn’t end up acting, but she is a playwright. Her play “Whale Song,” a Perseverance Theater production, opens this weekend in Anchorage.
“Whale Song” is set in the present day and follows the journey of Ani, a young Native woman who — in order to save the earth’s bowhead whales — must marry and become one. As the play progresses, Ani must decide whether to leave her family and life behind for the good of the species.
The play has a robust cast of 10 characters, from humans to whale priestesses. The debut run in Juneau was praised by the Juneau Empire, which wrote, “as the character descriptions and smattering of plot summary might suggest, ‘Whale Song’ is a thoroughly bananas affair in the most positive way.
Rexford said she wrote countless drafts of “Whale Song” while attending the University of British Columbia and eventually connected with Art Rotch, Perseverance artistic director. She worked with Rotch on “They Don’t Talk Back,” which toured in 2017. Later that year, Rexford and Rotch workshopped “Whale Song” and invited Madeline Sayet, a TED Fellow and Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, to lead the session.
“It was the first time that I had heard ‘Whale Song’ read aloud in Juneau, and that was amazing,” Rexford said.
Rexford and Sayet quickly bonded over the script, and Sayet joined the production as director. Sayet is Mohegan, a tribe from the Northeast region of the U.S., and said she connected with Ani.
“You don’t get to see an epic that takes place in the present day and you rarely get women, right — let alone Native women in those types of roles,” Sayet said. “As a Native director, the fact … that it was an Inupiaq play, but it had these heightened poetic moments, was really interesting to me.”
There are many philosophical one-liners sprinkled throughout the script, but the underlying theme of the production goes much deeper. Sayet said it was important to recognize that the relationship between humans and whales has, at times, been turbulent and disloyal. She says oil drilling specifically in the Arctic has “tremendous effects” on whales.
“When you’re working on a play that deals with transforming into a whale, you spend a lot of time thinking about what that active transformation is,” Sayet said. “The relationship between the people and the whales is ancient and that we are currently — in many ways — betraying that ancient relationship.”
“The play reflects on how we’re living in the world as human beings and what our responsibility is — not just to other human beings but to animals and all life on the planet,” Rexford added.
Rexford is currently writing a new production, which is about a young woman in the Arctic attempting to bring back the body of her aunt who died in Anchorage.
“I myself have had — and I’m sure many Alaska Native people — have had relatives who have gone missing, who have been murdered, who are experiencing a lot of the violence that is a direct result of the boarding school era and colonization,” Rexford said. “I have had relatives who I have lost, and it’s hard to deal with. This was one of the ways I think that I am healing and grappling with that loss.”
Rexford says having her play debut in Alaska was a “dream come true.”
“To see your own story and your own people reflected back to you in this age of media is super important,” Rexford said.