Alaska Native playwright Vera Starbard wrote "Our Voices Will Be Heard," a story about a community's reaction to child sexual abuse. She sits at her grandparents' house in Juneau on Friday afternoon.

Alaska Native playwright Vera Starbard wrote "Our Voices Will Be Heard," a story about a community's reaction to child sexual abuse. She sits at her grandparents' house in Juneau on Friday afternoon.

Why the conversation on sexual abuse must continue

The day news broke that Alaska storyteller Jack Dalton was being charged with sexual abuse and attempted sexual abuse of a minor, Tlingit playwright Vera Starbard felt like hiding from the world.

Starbard wrote “Our Voices Will Be Heard” — a part-fiction, part-autobiographical play about her own experience being sexually abused by her uncle as a child. It’s set in a 19th century Tlingit village. She cast Dalton in the important role of storyteller.

“If I can’t write a play about sexual abuse without casting someone who may be a sexual abuser in the play, then I just need to give up, and that was a pretty overwhelming feeling,” Starbard said.

Writing “Our Voices Will Be Heard” started off as a way for Starbard to tell the story of her mother speaking out about Starbard’s abuse and going against family pressure to keep it quiet.

Starbard’s mother reported her own brother to Alaska State Troopers and told Starbard’s story in court. Starbard’s uncle went to jail for two months.

“She was very much blamed for causing trouble in the family and for that, she got pretty ostracized from her whole side of the family for sticking up for us,” Starbard said in a recent interview.

When the play was brought to stage — something Starbard never thought would happen — the play became a catalyst for audience members to share their own stories.

“After every single show I would stand out in the lobby and people would come out and start talking about their story of abuse or someone they knew who was abused. It really became the conversation starter to what they really felt and wanted to talk about. (The play) reflected pieces of their story,” she said.

Talking about abuse is a step toward stopping abuse, said Starbard, who’s been trained in sexual abuse prevention.

“Abuse is such a shaming action to happen that people don’t know how to talk about it. Not talking about it helps abuse. The shame of it and the guilt that goes on around victims not talking about it is exactly what abusers want to happen. One of the first things that so many of them say is a version of, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’”

But exposing an abuser, like her uncle, can be powerful. While many of Starbard’s family did try to “hush it up,” others wouldn’t allow their children around him.

“There are a lot of studies that say if I had been able to say something like ‘Stop’ or ‘Don’t,’ he would’ve just stopped. But, especially back then, nobody knew how to talk about it or how to teach their children that your body is your own and you can say no,” she said.

Confronting the issues

“Our Voices Will Be Heard” debuted at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau in January and then traveled to Hoonah and Anchorage in February. Starbard never sought out to become a poster child for surviving child sex abuse, but her play touched upon issues communities in Alaska and around the nation grapple with everyday.

Dalton’s arrest pushed Starbard to further confront the issues. She was afraid his involvement in “Our Voices Will Be Heard” could take away its power and change how people viewed it. She felt betrayed and wanted to hide.

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but what is the message of the play? That shutting up after it happens is really bad. That’s a simplistic view, but after having presented him to people on this subject, there was a responsibility to model speaking out about it,” Starbard said.

On May 14, she wrote a Facebook post about Dalton’s arrest and how she felt. She said she started writing it in the middle of the night. It was originally 12 pages long.

“What I hope the post would at least try to show was I don’t have a great response for this. This shouldn’t happen, so there’s no correct response. The correct response is just to start talking about it,” she said. “Speaking out was the right thing even if it wasn’t perfect. People need to know it was OK to speak.”

And she doesn’t mean just talking about Dalton. She said he has yet to have his day in court. But abusers exist among us. They’re in our community, they may be someone we love, and Starbard said we need to move the dialogue around abusers beyond “we just need to lock them up.”

“We need to look at them as human more than we do and not because I think we should go easier on them necessarily as far as justice and what they’ve done criminally, but if we just think these people are monsters, we’re not going to see them as part of our daily life. I don’t think people recognize that it’s the person next to them that they love very much who is actually doing these things, and it comes from a broken place, versus a place that is out of our realm of understanding,” Starbard said.

“If we only look at them as sociopaths or these sort of creatures that don’t exist on the same plane of us, we’re never going to understand how to get this to stop,” she continued. “It’s human behavior that we need to get to stop, not this monstrous behavior that we can’t possible help.”

In her Facebook post, Starbard explained, “I wrote a play to tell a story about my own childhood sexual abuse, and then I invited someone I trusted, respected, and cared for to be my voice.”

As the storyteller in “Our Voices Will Be Heard” — a role originally written for a female, but adapted for Dalton — Dalton embodied a futuristic character telling a story involving bear, wolverine and otter.

“It was not a character who was in the same timeline as the other characters. The storyteller character was meant to represent the future of what this land can be, which is a future without child abuse,” Starbard said emotionally. “The idea of child abuse is so unthinkable that he has to resort to myth to get people to understand it, that it’s just not something that happens anymore, and that’s who he was representing.”

At the end of the play, Dalton’s character walks on stage with a child.

Wake up call

Dalton, born in Bethel and from Anchorage, has long been known around the state as a storyteller. In the past year, the 43-year-old spent some time in Juneau for his performance in Starbard’s play as well as his own play, “Assimilation.”

“Assimilation” flips the script on the history of Native boarding schools. In the play, Native people are running the boarding school and white people are being assimilated into Native culture. He started a statewide tour of the play at University of Alaska Southeast last October. The play was paired with a community discussion on healing and trauma, and one of the play’s goals was to start a statewide dialogue.

“He was modeling a lot of healthy behaviors,” Starbard said, “healthy stories, helping people to heal, and he was really good with empathy and evoking empathy in us.”

Starbard said she genuinely feels bad for Dalton.

“He has to be in a really dark place to sort of live with saying these things in public and what he might have actually been doing when he went home. That’s a pretty dark place to go. You really have to compartmentalize in a way I don’t understand to be able to do that,” she said.

Starbard hasn’t been in communication with Dalton since the news broke May 11 about his charges, and doesn’t imagine she will be. She said she’s going to recast the role of storyteller for future performances of “Our Voices Will Be Heard.” Other plans have changed as well.

“He was actually going to do more than just acting in it. He was going to take the reins and take it on a little mini community tour,” Starbard said.

At the moment, Starbard is holding off on the community tour until more funds can be raised. She’s focusing on potentially showing the play in Fairbanks during the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October.

Despite her original reaction to hole away, Starbard realizes, more than ever, “Our Voices Will Be Heard” needs to be shown.

“This is a wake up call to where we need to take the community conversation next,” she said. “The play started it. Now, how do we continue it?”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

Related stories:

Alaska performer charged with sexual abuse of a minor

‘Our voices will be heard’: A universal story in a distinctive voice

Review: ‘Our voices will be heard’

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