In this day and age, when UC Berkeley is cutting staff and its budget and raising student fees, it’s hard to imagine a time when the school saw no bounds to its growth.
In 1911, the University of California (there was only one campus then) was enjoying a Golden Age. Benjamin Ide Wheeler had assumed the presidency in 1899, providing the university with the stability and vision it had long lacked. Phoebe Hearst’s contest to create a new architectural plan for Cal had led to the construction of stately, Beaux Arts structures around campus. The size of the faculty and student body had grown exponentially.
In that context, perhaps it is not hard to understand the arrogance that led Alfred Kroeber, the head of the burgeoning anthropology department, to install a Native American at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology, then located in San Francisco. His name was Ishi, and he was the last of the Yahi, a tribe that once numbered 400 and lived in the hills around Oroville. Forty-nine when he wandered out of the hills, desperate for food, Ishi would live at the museum from 1911 until his death from tuberculosis in 1916, when he was 53.
Ishi’s story and the deliberate slaughter of his tribe is effectively, if brutally, told in John Fisher’s ambitious play, Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, now being presented by the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at Zellerbach Playhouse. The play closes March 11.
It is an entertaining, although deeply disturbing, play, filled with scenes of prejudiced white men massacring Indians for a $5-a-head state bounty, gunfire, rape, murder, cannibalism, and even academic jealousy. But if you are shocked and disturbed after seeing it, (and at three hours long, you see a lot) then Fisher, the artistic director of Theater Rhinoceros in San Francisco and a frequent lecturer in the theater department, will have attained his goal. He clearly wants to tell people about this unknown chapter of California history: that the slaughter of Native Americans also happened here, not just at Wounded Knee or on the Trail of Tears.
“We are living in the wake of genocide,” one character states early in the play.
All the more reason to puzzle why Fisher has combined the serious, sad, and tragic story of Ishi and his tribe with over-the-top, even ribald elements. In Fisher’s re-imagining of history, Phoebe Hearst is a lusty, garrulous, cigar-smoking patron who complains about her infrequent bowel movements and inability to bed her chauffeur. She is interested in Ishi because, as an object of interest, he can be used to raise funds for Kroeber’s museum. “Great buildings are built on great stories,” she says.
Those outlandish scenes are jarring, particularly when they come soon after ones in which the bounty hunters chase Native American all over the stage, shooting at them, slashing them with knives, cutting off their heads and stashing them in sacks in order to get their payment.
I have never seen a TDPS play before so I do not know if UC often hires older, professional actors to perform alongside its students. But the decision to cast Christopher Herold, the director of ACT’s Summer Training Congress and an acting lecturer at Cal, is a smart one. Herold brings a gravitas to the role of Kroeber, which anchors the entire show.
The rest of the actors are Cal students and occasionally some seem too young to play their parts, most notably in the case of Ishi, who was middle aged when he came to Cal but is a young man in this production. Intae Kim does a good job as Ishi, and the acrobatics he and Kayal Khanna, who plays Ishi’s father, do to convey the fights against white men are impressive.
The rest of the cast is also very good, including Matthew Capbarat as Dr. Thomas Waterman, Krober’s colleague (and whipping boy) in the anthropology department; Gwen Kingston as Krober’s tubercular wife Henrietta, and Kirsten Luisa Peacock, who plays Dr. Saxton Pope, turned here into a woman. Even though Fisher caricatures Phoebe Hearst, Devon Roe carries it off well.
The staging of Ishi is one of its strongest points. There is a lighted well in the center of the stage and the audience sits on either side. Two sets sit on the ends of the well, with another resting along part of one side. The effect is to make the audience feel part of the action.
And what action there is. Loud gunfire, smoke, tumbling, and falling. White men chasing Indians. Native Americans crouching in freezing rivers hoping their pursuers won’t see them. The vigorous motion conveys the physicality of the west and the University’s manifest destiny.
In a city filled with great theater companies, including Berkeley Rep, Aurora, the Shotgun Players, and Impact, many theatergoers may not have paid close attention to the work being done at TDPS. Peter Glazer, the chair of the department, has written that he wants to make the department’s work “even stronger, even more visible to the campus and the Bay Area community at large …. We want the Bay Area community that attends theater and dance performances to know us and recognize TDPS as a site for work that stands alongside the best theaters in the area, and at a fraction of the price.”
It is clear that the students, faculty, and directors of TDPS are not afraid to tackle serious subjects to present provocative and entertaining theater. Bravo.
Ishi: The Last of the Yahi opened on Friday, March 2 at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus and will run through Sunday, March 11. Performance times are as follows: March 9, 10 – 8pm
TICKETS: $15.00 – General Admission; $10.00 – Students, Seniors and UC Berkeley Faculty/Staff. Group discounts are available for ten or more: $10.00 General Admission, $7.00 Students/Seniors. To purchase tickets, visit tdps.berkeley.edu. For assistance, contact the box office at 510-642-8827 (Fridays between 1pm and 4pm) or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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