Between two worlds and then some

Pub date July 23, 2008
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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There have been books, documentaries, feature films, and more than one play about Ishi, the last "wild" California Indian who emerged from the hills of northern California in 1911 and became friend and subject of renowned Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and his colleagues. Purportedly the sole surviving member of the Yahi tribe — just one of many indigenous groups decimated by white settlers’ diseases as well as the state-sanctioned genocidal violence against California’s native populations in the late 19th century — Ishi succumbed after five years in San Francisco to the white man’s disease of tuberculosis, only to rise again years later (thanks in part to a famous biography written by Kroeber’s second wife, Theodora) as a symbol of new age spiritualism and the elevation of naturalism as ennobling.

Ishi has been the subject of many stories, then, though none necessarily entirely or even remotely his own. Ishi: The Last of the Yahi — Bay Area playwright and Theatre Rhinoceros artistic director John Fisher’s own foray into the history, legend, and meaning of Ishi — takes the idea of the native Californian’s true story as its supple (if somewhat overworked) premise, boldly mixing fact and fiction as well as contemporary and early 20th-century mores to tell a tale of deeply rooted systemic violence that, among other things, links the production of scientific knowledge and the construction of difference (especially racial and sexual difference) to the all-out homicidal impulses of a colonial system of conquest.

This bracing scope, however, is only fitfully fulfilled by the play’s uneven characterization and somewhat tortuous plot, which attempts to ground the play’s more abstract and polemical aspects in a set of human relationships that reverberate across the cultural gulf separating Ishi from his white hosts. Bounding across roughly 150 years, three cities, and two continents, Ishi throws up promising ideas throughout, but ends by being too disjointed and dramatically hit-and-miss to adequately sustain them.

The play brackets the principal action, set between 1911 and 1916, with an academic job talk and a university undergraduate course dealing with the history and implications of Ishi’s story, interspersed with loud and violent scenes of bounty hunters running down Ishi’s relatives. Alfred Kroeber (Kevin Clarke), and colleagues Thomas Waterman (Aaron Martinsen) and Dr. Saxton Pope (Matt Weimer), meanwhile, move effortlessly between the early 20th century and the contemporary setting, in which terms like "postcolonial multiculturalism" are confidently bandied about.

Our first glimpse of Kroeber is of a highly ambitious man courting the favor of a rich benefactress — Phoebe Apperson Hearst (Kathryn Wood) — to secure the necessary funds for a world-class anthropology museum. He is also a loving husband whose wife, Henrietta (Jeanette Harrison), is slowly dying of TB. Here, Henrietta is supposedly the daughter of Kroeber’s renowned former teacher, Franz Boas, a problematic father figure Kroeber has broken with. These connections will find echoes in the relationships in Ishi’s own family. The deal brokered between Kroeber and Hearst, meanwhile, ends up turning on Kroeber’s success in extracting the personal history of the last Yahi, who has just been discovered half-starved and rummaging for scraps in Oroville.

Played with an air of abiding confidence, subdued sorrow, and quiet humor by Michael Vega, Fisher’s Ishi must negotiate a world in which everyone wants a figurative or literal piece of him but where human sympathy and the growing bonds of friendship have their own pull, bidding him to reveal more of himself. Solidly crafted performances from Clarke and Harrison help anchor the drama in the complexity and heartache of the death-shrouded Kroeber marriage. Martinsen is a persuasive and sympathetic Waterman, while Wood’s turn as a jocular and surprisingly ribald Hearst lends further pluck to an otherwise uneven cast. But at more than three hours, including back-to-back addresses from three characters driving home a moral-laden and convoluted conclusion, there is a leaner play waiting to come out here.


Wed/23–Sat/26, 8 p.m.; Sun/27, 3 p.m., $15–$35

Theatre Rhinoceros

2926 16th St., SF

(415) 861-5079,