Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Pittsburgher Gab Cody was born in Juneau, Alaska, moved to Wasilla, Alaska, and was 5 when her parents divorced and she and her mother departed.
She left behind half-brothers six and 15 years her senior and a half-sister 13 years older, along with a foster brother and sister of the indigenous Tlingit people. The pair were ages 2 and 3 when they were taken in by Ms. Cody’s family, at a time when her mother was pregnant with her.
“I have always said my family was fodder for Oprah,” playwright Cody said.
Her journey that began in 2014 — to rediscover a family and place she had left behind nearly 40 years earlier and weave in a plight facing Native American children — is coming to Quantum Theatre this week.
“Inside Passage” combines documentary film, enactments of imagined events and live theater in the world premiere of her quest, shared with her husband, director Sam Turich, and cinematographer Rob Long.
A series of events inspired Ms. Cody’s search for the children whom “I had known only as my brother and sister.”
The form it will take was inspired in part by Toshiki Okada’s “Zero Cost House,” which she saw performed by Pig Iron Theatre at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty.
“I was really struck by the piece, the way it was autobiographical and the way he utilized actors. Then in the fall, NoName Players was having SWAN Day, and they asked me to write a short play. And around the same time, my mother gifted me a big photo album,” Ms. Cody explained.
She and her mother had moved around a lot before she settled in Pittsburgh, and she thought the photographs had been lost.
“It was a surprising gift, and I was looking at it with my 5-year-old daughter. She saw a picture of four little kids on a horse. And she said, ‘Mommy, who are those kids?’ And I said, ‘That’s my family.’”
Ms. Cody realized she had not seen three of those people since she, herself, was 5.
That became her topic for the SWAN (Supporting Women Artists Now) Day play, and Mr. Okada’s autobiographical work became an inspiration. In his play, a handful of actors each portray him and multiple other characters, as do the six actors in “Inside Passage.”
Spurred to continue and armed with several grants, Ms. Cody traveled to Alaska with Mr. Turich and Mr. Long in August 2015 and June 2016. She also consulted with Judith Schachter, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of anthropology, who has expertise on fostering and adoption in native communities. She advised Ms. Cody to approach with caution, and consider they may not wish to be found.
When Ms. Cody left Alaska as a child in the mid-1970s, there was a movement toward indigenous people fostering and adopting their own, and her family had returned her foster siblings to their birthplace.
On the first trip back, they visited the streets in Juneau and Wasilla, where Ms. Cody had lived. Asked if she remembered anything when they arrived in Wasilla, she told her husband, “No, but this is the place of my dreams. These images are incredibly familiar to me.”
“You’re downplaying it,” Mr. Turich said to his wife. “She shot out of the car, and she was sobbing. I think what we have uncovered is a lot of barely remembered emotional trauma, from losing her family when she was 5.”
“Except this play is also funny!” declared Ms. Cody, whose comedy “Fat Beckett,” co-written and performed with Rita Reis, also premiered at Quantum. They laughed about discovering where her obsession with moss comes from — there was plenty to be seen in Alaska.
Mr. Long was the constant observer on “the expedition,” always with a camera in hand. He had worked with the couple previously on the immersive project “STRATA,” and they shared the concept that Alaska, itself, was a character in “Inside Passage.”
“Just the monumental scale of everything hit me, and the rich, ancient textures of everything — the moss, the landscapes, the jagged horizons were very special. It felt like a different world,” he said. Watching his colleague’s experience through a lens “was hilarious at times and also really painful.”
The cast for “Inside Passage” includes Skyler Ray-Benson Davis, a Tlingit actor, who has come from Alaska to provide sparks of energy and authenticity. After his first time flying to the Northeast part of the country and in the car ride from the airport, he declared, “I love Pittsburgh.”
Also among the cast, veteran Pittsburgh actor John Shepard has been with the production since the SWAN Day production and is joined by PG Performer of the Year Laurie Klatscher; Shammen McCune, who is marking a return to Quantum; actor-director Kyle Haden, who joined the CMU staff in 2016; and Kelsey Robinson, who appeared in “DODO” for Bricolage.
They will be acting out one woman’s story of loss and discovery, while shedding light on a subject as big as the the fostering and adoption of Native Americans.