The smell of the ocean in the air, audience members lounging on blankets and couches around the stage, actors and audience singing together to songs old and new …
When Fern Naomi Renville (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) and Roger Fernandes (Lower Elwha S’Klallam), Renville’s partner and assistant director, decided to adapt Coast Salish and Dakota origin stories as the play “Changer and the Star People” at Sound Theatre Company, they envisioned a production that would feel like listening to stories on the beach or at a powwow.
The set designer, Tommer Peterson (Métis), had even planned on using real materials for the set, like a canoe on loan from the Tulalip Tribes and fresh kelp and seaweed from Tulalip Bay to bring in the smell of the ocean.
When the pandemic hit and COVID-19 restrictions banned live performances, Renville was crushed, but like many other theater artists right now, she and the cast and crew decided to turn part one of the play into a radio play.
Although the set was scrapped and the script had to be altered, the audio rendition leans into the natural storyteller cadences of the actors’ voices. As they share myths and stories over a background of ocean waves, it’s hard to imagine a better medium for the play’s lessons about the power of storytelling.
The premise of “Changer” may seem simple: A child, Johnny, voiced by 7-year-old Asriel Willis (Cayuse, Yakama, Nez Perce, Oglala Lakota), and Johnny’s “Pop-Pop,” Sonny, voiced by Johnny Patchamatla (Chippewa/Ojibwe — White Earth), enjoy a story-filled day at the beach.
But as they tell each other stories, we listeners travel back in time, learning about S’Klallam origin myths, and forward to an imagined future when full tribal sovereignty is recognized and Indigenous lands have been returned.
In “Changer,” everyone is a storyteller and every story is an education. That includes the story of “Changer” itself, a fact reinforced by the resource list compiled by the Seattle Public Library (books of Coast Salish folk tales, anthologies of Indigenous science fiction and history books about Indigenous resistance movements) and shared on the Changer website.
“‘Changer’ is a gentle stealth vehicle for engaging learners in Washington’s evolution,” Renville said.
As the characters tell of trickster gods and salmon people, and even make passing note of the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, they’re also learning about things like tribal sovereignty treaties and land acknowledgments, and absorbing moral lessons like the virtues of listening and how to take care of the land and each other.
“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decision on the next seven generations,” says Coyote, voiced by Casey Wynecoop (Spokane).
But “Changer” doesn’t only revisit origin myths and history, it also imagines a future that could be if only we would heed the lessons those stories and history teach.
That is what this story aims to teach: that we have to know our history in order to imagine a better future.
“Grandma calls that decolonizing,” says the play’s youngest character, Johnny. “Remembering how we were before the traumatizers came here.”
And Changer (voiced by Fernandes), one of the gods who makes an appearance in the story, praises Johnny’s youthful wisdom: “It appears I’m not alone in preparing the world for the ones to come; the S’Klallam People have prepared this young one well.”
As the pandemic takes more lives every day and isolates us from our loved ones, and after an election season that revealed just how divided our nation is, listening to “Changer” feels like gathering around a beach-side fire with our community.
“We are in the midst of infinite traumas right now,” Renville said in an interview. “I wanted to take myself and our audience to a place that’s already healed, to a place where we can see our trauma in the rearview mirror.”
As we settle into our self-quarantine bubbles and prepare for gray skies and cold weather, stories like “Changer” are a soothing tonic.
And as Renville came to understand by looking back on Dakota winter traditions, “You wouldn’t want to be without a storyteller for a long winter.”