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Theater People: James Sie conjures a universal myth

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During his New Jersey childhood James Sie identified strongly with the heroine of Scott O'Dell's 1960 children's classic Island of the Blue Dolphins. "I sympathized with her sense of loneliness and isolation, her learning to fend for herself," he explains. "I suppose any kid growing up could relate to the way she adjusts to the world, dealing with adversity. But being a first-generation Chinese American, I also felt somewhat different physically and isolated on an unconscious level. So the book's message of self-reliance and the importance of resourcefulness was very appealing."

At 31 the actor is about to make his directorial debut on Lifeline Theatre's main stage with his own adaptation of Island. While writing the script, Sie reread the remarkable and enchanting tale of a Native American girl surviving all by herself in her native Channel Islands for 18 years. He also spent time researching the original source. "Only recently did I find out that O'Dell based the girl Karana on a historical figure--that made the story all the more powerful for me. I've seen Disney's sanitized version which has cute otters and animals with fuzzy ears and tails."

The real saga of the lone woman of San Nicolas is quite grim. In 1835 a Spanish schooner landed on the most distant of the Channel Islands off the California coast near Los Angeles. "The Franciscan monks on board found a tribe of Gabrielino Indians already decimated by fights with the Aleutians, who invaded the island in search of seal and otter skins," Sie says. "They rounded up the survivors, mostly women and children, and herded them onto the ship." For years the Franciscans in California had been trying to convert the native tribes by bringing them to the missions and putting them to work. "It was a refined form of slavery," Sie avers, "and it gradually destroyed the cultural heritage of the Indians." One of the captive Gabrielino women, believing her child had been left behind, jumped ship to return to the island. The schooner sailed on.

"The woman was presumed dead," Sie continues. "Then, in 1853, another ship landed on the island. This time, the woman turned up and willingly went with the sailors to their ship. Seemingly in good health, she told her story in signs because no one could understand her language. She told them that her child had been taken by dogs, that she had lived on fish, seal blubber, and shellfish. She wanted to reunite with her people. But when she arrived on the mainland there was no one left who knew her or could even understand her. Ironically, she died soon afterward in civilization--after having survived years of wilderness."

Back in January, Sie visited some of the Channel Islands to "soak in the atmosphere" in preparation for the production. San Nicolas, now a naval base, was off-limits, however. "I spent days watching the sea lions and listening to the wind. There were no trees on the islands, just rocks. And the expanse of blue water stretched to the horizon. I could sense the immense isolation she must have felt."

Even though his research uncovered some fascinating tribal customs documented by anthropologists, including a female puberty rite, Sie decided not to try for meticulous re-creation of the life of O'Dell's or the real Karana. "I'm no expert on Native Americans," he says, "and I'm not concerned with historical events. What I want to convey, through images and sound, is the girl's emotional journey as she becomes mature. So I've pared a lot of the details in O'Dell's book and kept only the events that shaped Karana emotionally." In Sie's version there are two Karanas: the adult who tells the story and the child who enacts the memories. "The world they conjure up is both magical and primitive. So the sets we've designed are spare but with elements of Native American culture, the sound is percussive and ritualistic, and the other actresses impersonate wild dogs, sea creatures, and the benevolent blue dolphins in an expressionist manner. I believe that in theater the audience takes an active role in connecting the dots in the narrative."

Helping an audience to "connect the dots" proved fruitful in Sie's adaptations of A Wrinkle in Time and Dracula for Lifeline's children's stage. Sie joined the troupe in 1986 shortly after graduation from Northwestern University, where he majored in theater. He's appeared in Lifeline's Fanshen, the Goodman's A Christmas Carol, and Angel Island's FOB among other gigs around town. But his first brush with fame was almost four years ago when, as a poster boy for the Museum of Contemporary Art, his face was plastered on CTA buses and billboards all over the Loop. In that assignment, Sie's ethnic background worked to his advantage. "When theater and commercial directors want an Asian for ethnic mix, I'm on the top of the list," he says with a wry chuckle. "Otherwise I have to create my own opportunities." Sie is currently at work on a farce about AIDS stocked with "a lot of Asian characters."

In casting Island, Sie had to deal with the prickly dilemma from the other side: should he pick Native Americans for the two Karanas? "Believe me," he says, "I didn't want a white-bread cast. So we sent out many audition notices to the Native American community, but we got few responses." Genevieve Ven Johnson, in the role of the story-telling Karana, is an African American. And the 15-year-old Aimee Garcia, who plays the younger Karana, is Latina. The cast also includes Lee Chen, a dancer from Mongolia. "In this production, what the actors look like really doesn't matter," Sie adds. "They are all participants in a primal, universal myth."

Sie's other collaborators include choreographer Karen Tarjan, composer Douglas Wood, percussionist Tom Jasek, and set designer Rebecca Hamlin. Island opens Wednesday at 7:30 PM; the production will run through June 19. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $5 for kids under 12. Lifeline Theatre is located at 6912 N. Glenwood. For other info call 761-4477.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Charles Eshelman.

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