Native Radio Theater actors perform the Super Indian radio programA door squeals open. Auntie Galina, a foul-mouthed Athabascan tribal elder, shuffles into an Anchorage radio station, mistaking it for a radiology office. The station manager objects—they're on the air.
The sound of a dying aircraft engine builds into a scream as a small plane crashes into the room. Glass shatters. A cow moos. A trash-can lid rattles to a rest. The cawing host of Raven's Radio Hour has arrived.
Two minutes into the program, Auntie Galina interrupts the cast as they break into gleeful song and demands her X-ray. The wise-cracking Raven announces the show's fake sponsors: makers of whale-gutting knives, bakers of hardtack and “that fun-loving furry mega-corporation” Seal Oil Company.
Written by Jack Dalton and Ed Bourgeois, the Native Radio Theater program is perhaps best described as a one-off Native Alaskan version of Minnesota Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion, with Raven, the trickster deity of Alaskan creation myth, playing the role of Garrison Keillor. The variety show is educational—Auntie Galina teaches listeners how to say “shit-eater” in Athabascan—but one detects a hint of wryness in the way the Native Alaskans view themselves and their relationship with the rest of the country.
“Remember, these are people who were cheated out of all their treaties and mineral rights and land rights,” director Randy Reinholz, of the Choctaw tribe, tells CityBeat. “They know exactly the game corporate America plays. They steal things. I wouldn't describe it as cynicism, but political awareness. I wish people in the lower 48 would be more aware of what's happening.”
As for the southwestern-most of the 48, Raven's Radio Hour wasn't anywhere near Southern California's antennas in 2009 (though listeners could have picked it up on AIROS, a Native American station on satellite radio). Yet, the show is grounded in L.A. and San Diego.
Currently director of San Diego State University's College of Theatre, Television and Film, Reinholz has served as Native Radio Theater's artistic director since 2003. He also directed The Red Road, a one-woman play by Arigon Starr, herself a San Diego alum of Patrick Henry High School. The two plays comprised Native Radio Theater's 2009 season, which may be the organization's last.
Funded by the Ford Foundation in partnership with Native Voices at the Autry in Los Angeles and Native American Public Telecommunications, the radio-play series aims to expose Native American talent to a larger and more rural Native American audience. Since 2006, the group has produced two to three programs per year by artists from a wide range of tribes: Hopi, Navajo, Kickapoo and, of course, Athabascan.
Most of the radio plays are adapted from scripts meant for the stage. For Starr, this meant shortening her one-woman show from 80 to 59 minutes. It was easy enough to cut out all the pauses for laughs, but in the end, she was still forced to ax songs.
“A lot of the visuals had to be worked into the script's dialogue,” she says. “We had to make it very specific about who is coming into the diner, who is leaving, who this person is talking to.”
The Red Road is a musical comedy set in an Oklahoma truck-stop diner, which Starr describes as “very Monty Python.” Starr provides all the voices, from a country singer to a British punk rocker to a Star Trek nut.
“I am absolutely a fan of sci-fi, and I wanted to show that in a piece by a native writer,” Starr says. “Our worlds collide every day. The native walks around in the outside world, but that doesn't mean we don't take outside cultures in our own.”
Starr's reference to British comedy is actually literal. To produce The Red Road, Reinholz partnered with Dirk Maggs, director of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the acclaimed radio serial that launched irregular Monty Python writer Douglas Adams' science-fiction career. Starr says she was introduced to the director by her friend, Queen guitarist Brian May, who discovered Maggs was a fellow fan of Native American culture when he provided the music for Maggs' Spiderman radio serial.
“Randy asked who I would want to work with,” Starr says. “Like The Highlander, I said, there can be only one. Dirk Maggs is the guy.”
Radio theater is still an honored tradition in England, where television programs such as Flight of the Conchords, The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh were first aired on BBC radio. In the U.S., radio theater is a dying art form. Like many arts nonprofits, Native Radio Theater (www.nativetelecom.org/native_radio_theater) has seen funding dry up in this recession. Reinholz says that if the programs do return in 2010 or 2011, they will be in the form of public-health soap-operas designed to educate impoverished populations.
“They would be radio serials, and once the audience is hooked on the characters, then the health issues become the center of the plotlines,” Reinholz says. “The health issues different communities are dealing with become part of the fabric of the story.”
Several health foundations are interested in that project following similar successes in Africa, Reinholz says. Anyone who flicks through the AM dial while crossing the Southwest knows that radio is still a viable and necessary means for communicating news, music and entertainment programming—often in local languages—for rural native communities.
“Unlike cable television, you don't have to pay for it,” Reinholz says. “I think people in San Diego have a very current idea of what it means to be Native American, that they're rich because they have gaming. Only urban populations do it that way.”