Wabanaki tales, contemporary setting, in debut play

Posted May 17, 2012, at 3:04 p.m.

Donna Loring is known in Maine as a former tribal representative for the Penobscot Indian Nation, a law enforcement officer, a novelist, an activist and a radio show host. Though she has worn many hats in her career, musical theater playwright wasn’t one that she had any plans to acquire.

“The thought of writing a musical never entered my head. The thought of writing a play never even entered into my head,” Loring said. “But I have all this material, all these stories collected from my novel and from all the research I’ve done. I needed an outlet.”

Needless to say, her outlook on the idea changed when she took a playwriting class at the University of Maine with acclaimed resident playwright William Yellow Robe. One year later, Loring’s musical play “The Glooskape Chronicles: Creation and the Venetian Basket” will have a premiere reading at 7 p.m. Monday, May 21, at UMaine’s Neville Hall.

The play combines a contemporary setting with ancient, traditional stories from the Wabanaki people, drawing parallels between modern day issues and the legends handed down through generations. Songs from many different musical traditions are woven in throughout.

“I took some of my characters from fiction, and took all these Wabanaki legends, and found parallels between what people go through today and the themes in those stories,” said Loring, who put in long hours researching Native legend, especially those compiled in the late 1800s by American folklorist Charles Leland. “When I told [William Yellow Robe] my idea, he said, ‘Jeez, that’s hard to do. But let’s try it.’ And here we are.”

Yellow Robe, fresh off the March premiere of his latest play, “Wood Bones,” at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, directs the staged reading of “Glooskape” — named for the mythical cultural hero that figures heavily in Wabanaki lore. Though there will be music performed at the reading, Loring is looking for a composer to help her flesh out and complete the musical aspect of the show.

“It’s really quite an achievement on her part, to combine traditional cultural stories with contemporary times,” Yellow Robe said. “People don’t realize she has a deep love of musical theatre. She really came into the whole process fearlessly, without some of the hangups that other new playwrights might have. She’s a remarkable person.”

“Glooskape” tells those legends through the voices of characters from her fiction writing, named Hazel, Georgia and Jane Little Bear, who are set, initially, in a cabin in the wilderness. Performers in Monday’s reading include students from UMaine, local Native American performers such as Robert Bryant, Dale Lolar, Julie Sockabasin and Indigo Curtis, and UMaine professor Margo Lukens.

Through her play, Loring hopes to offer a fresh perspective to audiences on the resonance Native legends and stories still have in today’s world.

“It’s not like we ended our lives 500 years ago. We still have our stories to tell, and we still tell them. My purpose is to help people see the history behind it, and see how it applies to the world today,” Loring said.

“The Glooskape Chronicles: Creation and the Venetian Basket” will be performed at 7 p.m. Monday, May 21, at Neville Hall on the University of Maine campus. Admission is free.

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