Laura Wiens, The Triplicate

It's not your typical Lighthouse Repertory Theatre production.

In fact, LRT's Board of Directors did some soul-searching, and some research, before deciding it would produce "This is Crescent City," a musical written by local author and College of the Redwoods English Professor Ruth Rhodes that attempts to shine light on some of Del Norte County's often-forgotten history.

The production opens next Thursday and plays for two weekends at the Crescent Elk auditorium.

The play tells the story of a fictional history teacher, Norman Randal, who inspires his students to delve into the roots of their town's history. What they discover forces them to confront not only the demons of Crescent City's past, but their own as a result of growing up here.

Rhodes said that even though the play is fictional, the history is not. Think Tolowa genocide, Hmong diaspora and the motivations of some of the first white settlers in the area.

"The history they uncover is well-documented in our community," Rhodes said in a College of the Redwoods press release. "And the historical events that happened here will be eerily familiar to those from communities up and down the North Coast."

"It's controversial," she told the Triplicate this week. "This play may be shocking to some, I think. I imagined it to be really out of the box.

"I hope people will walk away thinking about their community and their part in the community - why they came to Crescent City and why they stayed. Think about what it means to be from a particular small community that's struggling with challenges such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violence, mental illness, other issues that are veiled from us because we don't confront them."

Many people have reviewed the script. Rhodes said she had a reading in her house with about 10 people. She gave a presentation at CR about the play last March. She talked about it with the Hmong community, the Yurok and Tolowa tribes. A grant from Building Healthy Communities allowed her to do workshops about the upcoming play.

The feedback was "extremely positive," said Rhodes. "I feel really good about the script. I wanted to make sure it resonated with them. I wanted to make sure it felt real."

'Highest form of storytelling'

LRT did its own research.

"We had in-depth discussions with the board, which was something that was important to investigate, to talk to people in the community about histories people may not know about," said Nina Burgess, LRT board president.

"The board had many meetings together and with others before voting on the proposal," said Burgess.

Being willing to focus on a town's roots - good and bad - is "how communities come together," Burgess said. "Crescent City is very much a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done town, a hard-working community. We are doing this in an artistic and thought-provoking way, in a truthful way. It's quality theater. The point is at the end of it, the coming together of the community."

Not only did the LRT board decide to produce "This is Crescent City," but "at least five board members are in the play," Burgess said. "They read it and wanted to be a part of it."

"Theater," said Burgess, "has the unique opportunity to provide social conversations. It's the highest form of storytelling. It's delving into the human soul so we don't forget history, to become a stronger and better community."

"We have a lot of populations in this community and we need to understand each other. We have a story of the Tolowa, a history of a Hmong family, the family dynamics of an incarcerated father."

The board was impressed with how Rhodes "networked with the community, such as the youth and other cultures, to incorporate them into the process," said Burgess. "A few of the songs are very moving. The cast is really devoted and it's gaining momentum. It's a wonderful challenge to create something new to bring to life for the first time from the pages of a script."

That challenge fell to director Howard Patterson.

"I sought him out when I was proposing the play," said Rhodes. "He's a minimalist, very independent. He's really good at getting the best out of actors. He is able to create a very believable story. People can be wearing burlap sacks and he can turn them into princes and princesses."

Patterson said when he read the script, "I liked it a lot. She did a great job. I felt that she hit it out of the park. It's got what I think any well-written play has, emotional drama and comedy. It's like life."

"Controversy in a play is a good thing," Patterson said, although he acknowledged, "some won't be happy. I don't think it should be controversial. It's a good thing to learn the truth about. Every generation that comes along tends to reinterpret its history."

A four-year project

Rhodes has been involved in theater since age 7. She wrote some plays in college, and two scripts for LRT's recent gala, as well as two plays for the summer youth theater.

Writing "This is Crescent City" resulted from not only that theater background, but her experience living in small towns such as Marble Mount, Wash. She's worked for the National Parks Service "all over the Northwest in and around national parks in small towns," moving to Del Norte in 2003

"I really enjoy small towns. I enjoy writing about them. I like thinking about them. And I'm terribly grateful for living in one."

She started thinking of writing a play focused on this area's history after her friend Geneva Wiki told her about Wiki's great-great-grandmother, a Tolowa woman who escaped genocide by living on a sea stack. While there she gave birth to a son.

"Her story is so inspiring, like so many others," said Rhodes.

"One thing that's important, while this play is based on our community, there are no characters that are parallel to living people," said Rhodes. "You won't see yourself on stage."

"It's real in that it reflects the history of our community," said Rhodes. "It captures the deep emotions people have about the past. It's about young people and how they come to terms with living in a small town, and that can be very confining."

Creating "This is Crescent City" took "four years of writing and rewriting, of putting it down and walking away and coming back to it." During that time, she started a preschool and had a baby. She is the mother of two sons, 6 and 2 1/2.

Now she sits in the Crescent Elk auditorium and watches the final rehearsals.

"It's a big cast, 17 characters, 15 songs including reprises. It's a full musical."

The players, she said, have bought into what she's trying to convey.

When the cast did the initial reading, "I understand that everybody cried," said Rhodes. "It was really emotional. I feel really good about that."

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