La Jolla Playhouse continues to search for plays of diverse genres that surprise, entertain, inspire, or ask questions. Some accomplish all of this, as is the potential for “They Don’t Talk Back,” by Frank Henry Kaash Katasse, an Alaska native from the Tlingit clan.
The play is part of Native Voices of the 2016/2017 resident theater company, a program spearheaded by Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, which aims to encourage the artistic development of rising performing arts organizations, while contributing to the San Diego and Southern California theater scene.
In an interview about the work, playwright Katasse said he thought he wanted to become a lawyer to fight for indigenous rights, and he attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa to study cultural anthropology. But an acting class changed his future.
“I took an acting class thinking learning some performing arts would help me in front of a jury someday,” he said. “I got bit by the bug and was asked to take a second acting class the next semester. I found that I loved the process of just creating. When I got to college those feelings arose again.”
Katasse admits at first he wasn’t much of a writer, but he started composing short screenplays in college. If he felt something he was passionate about, he would write a monologue, soliloquy, song, dance or poem. He submitted his first short play, “Reeling,” to the Native Voices program at the Autry Museum in Los Angles and became the recipient of the 2015 Von Marie Atchley Excellence in Playwriting.
“‘They Don’t Talk Back,’ my first full play, is both real experiences and narrative,” Katasse said. “I flipped one of the stories sideways, so I could weave through all the stories, and I adjusted all the monologues to break off from the main story. There are a lot of interludes that are inspired by music, hip-hop verse or dance.”
Many of his stories are about things he witnessed or things his parents told him. “They Don’t Talk Back” is one of the interludes.
“It’s a flashback to my grandfather talking to other Tlingits,” Katasse said. “My dad would always say they don’t just sit there and they don’t talk back. I always wondered who they were. In this interlude he explains that it is a traditional metaphor.”
“They Don’t Talk Back,” concerns Nick, a 17-year-old Tlingit youth. His mother is a drug addict in prison and his father a Desert Storm veteran with PTSD. Nick is sent from Juneau to stay with his grandparents, who reside in a remote Alaskan fishing village. Problems arise as he adjusts from living in a large city to a small town.
Randy Reinholz, co-founder of Native Voices at the Autry, will direct the play in association with Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre. A producer, director, playwright and actor, Reinholz has produced and directed more than 75 plays and productions nationally and internationally. Jean Bruce Scott, Native Voices Producing Executive Director, is producing the play at the Playhouse.
“I met Jean in Alaska when she came to work on ‘Our Voices Will Be Heard,’ ” Katasse said. “I asked her about Native Voices at the Autry and the festival, and she encouraged me to sign up. Randy was the director of my workshop and readings, so I had the opportunity to work with him in this play. It was such a pleasure. Everyone at the Autry is like a close-knit family. By the end of the workshop, I felt like family. I’m so excited that the La Jolla Playhouse is presenting my play. San Diego is such a great theater town, so when they said they were doing a reading of it in La Jolla, I was over the moon.”
IF YOU GO: “They Don’t Talk Back” is onstage May 26-June 5 at the Shank Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD campus. Tickets from $25. (858) 550-1010 lajollaplayhouse.org