'Raccoon Earns His Stripes'

Southern Oregon University's production of "Raccoon Earns His Stripes" offers an energetic, contemporary spin on Native American folk tales. More an ensemble performance piece than a play, the show is thought-provoking, lively and fun.

Those who expect a traditional play with a linear storyline and strong characters may be disappointed, but open-minded theatergoers of all ages will find a lot to like. The interactive format is engaging, the actors are funny and the action is quick.

Written by Brent Florendo, SOU Native American studies instructor, the play brings to the stage the ancient folklore of the Wasco tribe of the Columbia River Basin and Cascade mountains as told to him by his mother. Directed by SOU Professor Chris Sackett, the show incorporates elements of Wasco dances and songs also written by Florendo. It tells the story of Raccoon as he discovers connections with all living creatures, and learns the hard way that every action has a consequence.

During the one-hour production, which opened Feb. 24 in the Center Square Theatre, Raccoon shares the stage with characters such as Grandma Grouse, Coyote, Hawk and other Pacific Northwest animals. There are stories within stories and each serves to teach an important lesson. Parents should be aware that one especially hard-learned lesson involves deliberate cruelty to the Grandmother character.

Performers celebrate American Indian folklore as well as the oral tradition itself, with the ensemble cast employing the traditions of Wasco storytelling such as untying and tying a figurative storytelling belt to show the beginning and end of a story, and pointing to another storyteller to transfer their role. Having characters switch frequently from one cast member to another may be initially confusing to some, but under Sackett's tight direction the ensemble makes the transitions fluid.

A minimalist set and simple costumes keep attention on Florendo's lively choreography where it belongs. The show starts off slowly with a song that seems overly long, but thereafter moves at a good pace that held the interest of even the younger children. The actors are all strong, with no one standout, which is ideal for an ensemble, especially when characters can change bodies and the stories themselves are the main focus.

The call-and-response tradition used in the performance works well, especially with the kids in the audience, who, for the most part, readily embraced the audience-participation elements of the play. The audience even shares in the food that is passed around, in this case chocolate, because, as one storyteller says, eating together brings people closer. After the performance, one 9-year old boy was delighted. "I would see it again. They gave us candy and they made a joke with farts," he said.

"Raccoon" is certainly funny at times, but it does more than make kids laugh. It reminds everyone that these traditional stories, like the Wasco tribe, are still very much alive and strong, and that storytelling is more than entertainment; it's a living, breathing guide to life.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com.

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