John Fisher explores anthropology for Theatre Rhino
by Richard Dodds
The story of Ishi, the last surviving member of his Native American tribe who found a final refuge as an anthropological celebrity in San Francisco, has long been a romanticized tale of loss and salvation.
"It's almost like a children's story, this happy little fable," said John Fisher, who has written a play that extrapolates on more recent studies debunking the myth of Ishi and his patron, the noted anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, whose work with Ishi beginning in 1911 has given him his most lasting fame.
"Kroeber was very ambitious, and really was the first great American anthropologist," Fisher said. "But there's a dark side to his history, the way he exploited Ishi, and that's one of the things the play goes into."
Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, opening Saturday at Theatre Rhino, has been several years aborning. Fisher, Rhino's artistic director, began work on the play four years ago, and it was announced as part of the 2006-07 season. "I just decided we didn't have the money, because it's a large cast and a big costume job, which makes it sound like we have the money now, which we don't, but we're doing it anyway."
The extra time also gave Fisher the chance to considerably rework the play. The early version was set about equally in the past and present, with a gay graduate student providing a contemporary presence as he explores Ishi's story for himself. "I decided that was a whole other play, and I wanted to spend more time with Ishi and Kroeber and the people around them."
And that means no specifically queer content for a theater that bills itself as "the world's oldest continuously producing professional queer theater."
"Even if there is no gay content, I think everything I write is queer," Fisher said. "It is my interpretation, which can't help but be queer."
The nature of that interpretation is not something Fisher wishes to reveal in much detail before the play opens. "I am intentionally terse," he said. "I don't want anything out there other than the title and the briefest of plot summaries prior to somebody taking their seat."
But Fisher did acknowledge that as theatergoers do take their seats, they will encounter a significantly altered mainstage space. "We did a kind of transformation to make it much more in the round," he said. "The audience and the actors share the space more than ever, and I don't mean just actors running up and down the aisles."
The most famous accounting of Ishi's adventures, and Kroeber's anthropological work with him until Ishi's death in 1916, is Ishi in Two Worlds, written in 1961 by Kroeber's widow, Theodora, who never met Ishi. "Theodora was Kroeber's second wife," Fisher said, "and the play features Kroeber's first wife, who was dying while all this stuff with Ishi was going on."
Fisher considers Theodora Kroeber's book a fascinating study, but essentially an authorized look at both her late husband and his most famous subject. More recent writings, including Orin Starn's Ishi's Brain, poke some holes in the earlier accountings.
"What I'm doing is taking the existing information, and filling in what we can't possibly know," Fisher said. "While delving into Ishi's past, Kroeber finds out things about Ishi that he didn't really want to know, and Ishi is finding out things about us that he didn't want to know. Both parties make big assumptions about each other, and then arrive at huge disappointments. It's psychological adventure."
Ishi: The Last of the Yahi will run at Theatre Rhino through July 27. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 861-5079 or go to www.therhino.org.