AlterTheater Looks to Leave a Lasting Impact on Native Youth

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A young woman holds a clapper board while students gather in front of a stage curtain.
Students at AlterTheater's first summer sleep away camp for Native youth, held on the campus at University of Nevada, Reno in July 2021. (Teresa Melendez)

After being locked into endless Zoom rooms like so many theater companies in the past few years, AlterTheater Ensemble in San Rafael is using the summer of 2022 for a massive reboot.

Their production of Pure Native, written by Tuscarora playwright Vickie Ramirez, is the story of a prodigal son returning to his devastated upstate New York reservation with a potential remedy to the problems the land is facing. The solution includes licensing the reservation’s resources to the water conglomerate he works for, but he’s met with fierce resistance from his former community and childhood sweetheart.

The play, originally scheduled for Alter’s 2020 season, is now the centerpiece of some major changes for the company. The first is to shift away from an indoor space for the first time in their 17-year history, performing at California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda from July 15–24, then moving to Boyd Park in San Rafael from July 29–Aug. 7.

The second change is one that will carry a legacy long after the show closes: a five-day sleepaway camp where Native youth in grades seven through 12 will have the chance to take master classes from professional artists. The Arts Learning Project for Native Youth began online during the pandemic. The first in-person gathering took place on the University of Nevada, Reno campus in 2021, and it’s coming to the UC Berkeley campus at the end of July.

Riatta Palmer, Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone, works on a monologue during AlterTheater's first sleep away summer camp for Native youth, held on the campus of University of Nevada, Reno in July 2021. (Teresa Melendez)

Alter’s artistic director and co-founder Jeanette Harrison is ecstatic about what the youth will absorb over their time in the East Bay.

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“One of the exciting things about this camp is that we’re bringing in students who have very little, if any, exposure to the performing arts,” says Harrison, who is of Onondaga descent and a strong proponent and developer of Native new works regionally and nationwide. “We’re also bringing in students who’ve had lots of exposure to the performing arts. However, it’s been in spaces where they are the only Native person in the room. For the youth to come in and do something they’ve been doing, but doing it in an all-Native space that’s culturally competent and supporting their full selves, is going to be a powerful thing.”

AlterTheater's artistic director Jeanette Harrison. (Paul Gregory)

The camp prioritizes youth on reservations but has fortunately been able to accept all applicants. Most students come from California and Nevada, and the rest hail from the Northwest, the Seneca Nation in New York, Louisiana and the Navajo Nation. One of the goals of the camp is to expose them to writing for and by Native people.

“One of my personal frustrations is that there’s a lot of misrepresentation and stereotypes, lots of writing about Natives by non-Native people that’s very one dimensional,” says Harrison. “But when you have work actually written by Natives, it’s funny and multi-dimensional, complicated and complex. The play we’re working on now delves into the nuances of some very complicated issues in Indian country.”

Terry Jones is an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, located about 40 miles south of Niagara Falls. He’s also a performer in Pure Native and an instructor for the camp. Jones is particularly thrilled about the opportunity to have conversations about lives and futures, and to address the obstacles that have been culturally and historically placed upon Indigenous peoples.

“A lot of times, especially in big universities, you can be the only Indigenous person in the class, and in a lot of ways, you end up being the representation of all Indigenous people,” says Jones, who is also a filmmaker and founder of TornJersey Media, an independent Indigenous media production company. “With this program, what I bring is my experience—this is what you can expect if you want to pursue higher education, or when you go into the arts.”

Actor Terry Jones is an instructor at the Arts Learning Project for Native Youth. (Courtesy of the artist)

Harrison emphasizes that higher education is a critical focus for the students in the program. “It’s bringing students from the reservation to different communities and helping them connect with Native staff members, Native faculty, Native support services, Native student services, Native student associations and all the support infrastructure that can exist at a college campus,” she says.

For Jones, the opportunity to share his trajectory with the next generation of Native artists is a joy.

“This program is a great opportunity for me to pass the baton to the future Native leaders of tomorrow,” says Jones. “I think the biggest thing for the students to realize is that you can expand beyond survival mode and actually prosper and flourish as an artist, and hopefully we’re good examples of that.”