The road from idea to fully produced show that Alice Van Buren’s play, “INK,” has taken over the years has been a long one, full of diligent research, careful vetting and countless rewrites. When “INK” has its world premiere at the Penobscot Theatre Company this Friday, March 30, directed by Kappy Kilburn, it will mark a high point of a play that has been in the works, in one form or another, for nearly 25 years.
“I’ve lived with this story for a very long time,” Van Buren said. “It still feels vivid to me, though. It still feels real.”
The story starts in Rhode Island, when Van Buren was a graduate student in literature at Brown University. She would drive around Providence and look at all the place names, such as King Philip Plaza and Metacomit Boulevard. The Native Americans of southern New England may have been wiped out 300 years ago, but their words and history remained — even in something as simple as a street sign.
“All the history behind it is so vital to what America is today, and is so little known by the vast majority of Americans,” said Van Buren, who now lives in New Mexico. “We know almost nothing about what actually happened before we were a country, and the horrible things we did to the Native people that lived here.”
Van Buren began researching the tribes of that area and came across the remarkable story of a real colonial woman: Mary Rowlandson. In 1676, Rowlandson and her three children were kidnapped by a band of Wampanoag and Narragansett Indians and were held captive for nearly three months. Several years after her release, she wrote a strikingly candid narrative of her captivity, “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.”
“Even with all the long, religious diatribes in the book, it’s still very readable,” Van Buren said. “It’s unpretentious, and it spares no detail. She really shot from the hip.”
She was a Puritan pastor’s wife, after all — which makes it all the more remarkable that it was the first book published by a woman in the new world, and it has never been out of print. Though Van Buren had never written a play in her life, she knew Rowlandson’s story would make dramatic, compelling fodder for either stage or screen. But grad school and life put that idea on the back burner, and for more than a decade, Van Buren let it simmer. Then 9/11 happened, and Rowlandson’s words and story came roaring back into her life.
“All that screaming and yelling and talk of evil-doers, all that righteous rage felt extremely similar, to me, to the kind of language Mary and other Puritans used back then,” Van Buren said. “There seemed to be this long thread running through American history of fear of the other, and belief that America is somehow the chosen country. I started hearing all these people in my head.”
Van Buren jumped back into research, going over books and texts she’d read nearly 15 years prior in the libraries at Harvard University, and finding her own notes scribbled in the margins. Eventually, Van Buren had a first draft of the play that became “INK” — a tough and unflinching look at Rowlandson’s story told from both her perspective and the perspective of the Native Americans.
Though the play is ultimately extremely sympathetic to the injustices done to the Natives, it does not shy away from using Rowlandson’s own often offensive and demeaning language about Indians. When “INK” was in workshops in New Mexico, Massachusetts, New York and Canada, she was able to tighten the play up into something fit for the stage — but when she showed it to Native audiences, she got the feedback she longed for, even if it was sometimes a tough pill to swallow.
“I understand that Native audiences would get angry when a white person tries to tell their story,” Van Buren said. “I very much understand that and am sensitive to it. And to their credit, any Native groups I showed it to were very helpful, and helped me get it right. I’m certainly not claiming I can speak for them. I’m just trying to tell this story in the most honest way possible.”
In 2008, Van Buren was visiting Maine — her family summered on Little Deer Isle for decades — when she told a friend in Bangor about the play she’d been working on. The friend suggested she submit it to Penobscot Theatre’s Northern Writes New Play Festival, held each June. Elizabeth Neptune, a Passamaquoddy scholar of Native American languages, and by Ken Hamilton, a Maine-based cultural historian of the Eastern tribes, both gave it a look and made their suggestions. When it was accepted into the 2010 Northern Writes festival, it was quickly named the audience favorite. Last year, it was announced that “INK” would be a part of the 2011-2012 season, in its world premiere full production.
PTC artistic director Bari Newport called on her friend and colleague, Kappy Kilburn, a Pasadena-based director, to help bring “INK” to the stage. Kilburn specializes in directing new works, and “INK” has its own unique set of challenges — from mastering the highly formal way that 17th century people speak to effectively conveying the many themes present in the show.
“It’s all a matter of subtlety,” Kilburn said. “There’s a lot of clear parallels you can draw between what happened then and what happens now. The trick is to let those themes resonate naturally, instead of being obvious about them. And besides that, it’s a love story, and a story of empowerment. And our Mary is absolutely incredible.”
Rowlandson is played by Aubrey Saverino, a New York City actress; Rowlandson’s editor and eventual love interest, the Harvard-educated Native American James Printer, is played by Dylan Carusona, himself a Native American. The cast is rounded out by a number of local actors, including Bunny Barclay, Marcia Douglas, Steve Gormley, John Greenman, Jenny Hancock, Bernard Hope, Greg Mihalik and Steve Robbins.
Though “INK” is among the most challenging work PTC has put up to date, it is a powerful and important piece of theater that relays a story that is very difficult but extremely engrossing.
“In the end, it’s all about who tells the stories,” Van Buren said. “Mary is a totally unique voice, considering the time she comes out of, but there are other voices present in her story that I’ve tried to bring to light. There’s always more than one side to the story.”
“INK” will have two preview performances at 7 p.m. March 28 and 29; opening night is 8 p.m. Friday, March 30, at the Bangor Opera House. For tickets, call 942-3333 or visit penobscotheatre.org.