Of Whales and War: Spotlight on playwright Jaisey Bates

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Jaisey Bates  and her inspirations for The Day We Were Born

It is safe to say that whatever Jaisey Bates (Longhouse Huron, Algonquin) does, she goes above and beyond.  Not only is she an actress (she's performing in the reading of her play as well!) and playwright whose work has been performed all over LA and NYC, but is also the founder of The Peoplehood, a multicultural nomadic theater company “committed to working as an ensemble in the performance of original work celebrating diversity”.  It is any wonder she had time to write and submit her full-length play The Day We Were Born to us, complete with background material and on gorgeous letterhead. 

But these weren’t the chief reasons we chose this play to be presented during the First Look Series this SeptemberThe Day We Were Born is an incredibly poetic play, wrought with compelling characters and emotions as we follow Benny and Qi, two Iñupiat boys who are activated as part of the 3-297th for service in Iraq, the first call-ups of the Alaskan National Guard since WWII.  Even the play’s settings are intriguing, taking us from Barrow, Alaska, to the sweltering heat of Iraq, and through time and memory, seamlessly blending history and her imagination, where real life events seem mythical and the mythical seem real. Because there were so many layers to this story I asked her to explain a little bit about some of her inspirations.  I got a flurry of fascinating information and research and it would take multiple blog posts to share all of it with you, so here’s just a small peek into Jaisey’s methodology.

: Putu, Siku, and Kanik

During her research for the play, Jaisey came across the 1988 story of three California gray whales, who on their annual migration, became stranded in ice off the coast of Point Barrow, Alaska.  They took turns surfacing every four minutes in a small pool of water which was starting to ice up and were soon spotted by an Iñupiat whaler.  Iñupiat whale captains started to carve out another breathing hole and worked around the clock to keep them from icing over.  The story got reported by the Associated Press and dominoes into an international effort to save the whales. The whales were named Putu (ice hole), Siku (ice), and Kanik (snowflake).  National and international organizations worked tirelessly burrowing through the ice, and the media coverage was immense.  Two weeks into the efforts, Putu, the youngest, dies.  A week later, they are able to open a clearing through to sea and save the other two. Perhaps you saw the 2012 movie Big Miracle which was based on this story, starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.  Here’s the trailer:


What isn’t highlighted as much when talking about this historical event were the efforts of the Iñupiat community which has had a strong relationship with whales for a thousand years.  Jaisey was especially interested in their “quiet efforts” and their “stories of what it means to be part of such a community.  Stories of compassion for the whales trapped so far from their home.” When creating the characters of Benny and Qi, Jaisey linked them to the whales, even making their birthdate the same as the day the two gray whales were freed.  When Benny and Qi are sent to the war, they too, like the whales, are stranded “trapped in a place, struggling to breathe, far from one’s home.” 

OF WAR: The 3-297th

In the Day We Were Born, we begin with Benny and Qi who, right after graduating high school, are sent to Iraq as a part of the Alaskan National Guard.  For many Native Alaskans, joining the Alaskan National Guard is a rite of passage, where almost 35% of the Guard is made up of Native Alaskans.  In 2006, the 3-297th (3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment) is mobilized for service in Iraq, the first call ups of the Alaskan National Guard since WWII, and the largest activation in the history of the organization.    Most are under the age of 28, many from remote rural areas or Bush villages and have never traveled out of Alaska and speak English as a second language.  In addition, the Iñupiat men that are deployed are often the providers of hunting and fishing for their families and communities.

Throughout her research on the subject Jaisey was particularly struck by the story of Staff Sergeant William Brown, in the National Guard for 29 years and an “uncle” figure for troubled Barrow youth who promised to the Iñupiat community that he would bring their boys back safely.  Unfortunately, at 54, Sergeant Brown was killed during training when his Humvee was hit by a tractor trailer, and his body returned to Barrow and was buried in the Elders Cemetery.  It took 20 Iñupiat men a full day to cut through the permafrost to dig the grave.

The 3-297th was deployed to Iraq in October 2006, going from sub-zero weather to enduring 140+ degree heat in full body armor.  They returned in October 2007 and much like the many Native Americans and Alaskan Native which fought (many voluntarily) in the Vietnam war, these soldiers suffered from PTSD, which lead to alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce, depression, and suicide, problems which these populations were already disproportionately suffering from.  In addition, they were without proper post-deployment programs, especially those living in rural off-road areas.

Jaisey places her characters in this same predicament, both boys carry the weight of wars past and present.  “War and its visible and invisible injuries, untreated, uncured, haunt the children and grandchildren of the veterans.”  But the play is not just about these difficulties and tragedies, but about bringing them to light to repair what has been broken, and move towards hope and renewal.

OF WRITING: Final Thoughts

I imagine Jaisey’s mind to be a Mobius strip – time and space are fluid, and she masters them, bending them to unveil intricate stories that otherwise might have been lost in the ether.  She successfully melds history and spirituality, along with distinct grounded characters that may be in a far away place or imagined space, but are just as real and relatable as the person sitting next to you.  It is not simply that the dialogue is poetic, but the entire play is a poem, perhaps even a dirge.  I feel like there’s a cacophony of information and stories inside her brain, but the good kind of cacophony, the kind that allows her to build whole new worlds, new symphonies.  You get a sense that she really is knowledgeable about what she’s writing and wants to share it.  But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what she says about her writing:

“Writing for me is a journey of faith through new lands of thought and heart and being.  Ancient cartographers wrote “here be dragons” over uncharted territories.  I am no mapmaker – my stories’ lands are new to me, not to others – so maybe that isn’t the best analogy.  How to describe?  When I walk deeper into the thick, breathing, living weave of a story, the story walks deeper into me.  Every story’s journey adds some new hue, perspective, dimension to the way I walk and see this earth, to my experience of what it means to be human.  I carry my stories with me and my stories carry me.  It’s like circles within circles within circles, each spinning and orbiting, each its own world.  I watch and listen and learn how elements speak to each other and the whole.  I research and seek out guides to navigate stories’ lands.  Not for a GPS “recalibrating” or direction to “take the next legal u-turn” or such.  More as an attempt to experience stories’ worlds from within, without harm or judgment, from a place of trust, honoring.  For me, writing is.  Words have lives of their own.  Words and patterns of words endure and breathe beyond the map of me and my life.  Or at least that is my hope for my stories– that they survive and speak to others (other words, stories, people).  I have not raised a child or found a cure for cancer or a way to encourage mutual tolerance and compassion and the seeds of peace in war-torn lands.  But with these stories – with ‘day we were born’ – I hope to offer you and those as-yet-unborn a bright gift and legacy of my love.”

Meet Jaisey Bates at the FREE public reading of The Day We Were Born, on Thursday, September 20 @ 7:30 p.m.  Reservations are recommended.


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