Character Identity

Ethan Dung, who plays several characters, including Sidney Harper Marsh, Henry Sicade and a modern Hawaiian student, poses in this picture by Mark Fukui.

Oct. 18, 2012
Theatre Department presents a devised play on identities and diversity at Pacific University.

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“You’ve got to learn what happened. If you don’t, how do you know if you’re going forward or backward? Where we are today, definitely, I think we’re going forward.”

That’s Valerie Fournier, a Pacific University senior and one of about 10 cast members for The Anxious Seat: Pacific Identity Project, opening tonight at Tom Miles Theatre.

It’s a devised play, meaning it was written by students and guest director Jessica Wallenfells, during the six-week rehearsal process. They conducted historical research, as well as interviews with current students, faculty and staff, to develop characters both from Pacific’s past and present. It all focuses on identity and diversity, in ethnicity and much more.

Fournier plays several characters, including missionary and founder Harvey Clark, Kin Saito, a Japanese student who earned a degree at Pacific in 1876, and Maria, a modern Hispanic cleaning lady working with Adelante Mujeres.

“I think what’s so great about this play is that we get to play so many characters,” Fournier said. Wallenfels added that all the parts were cast with a blind eye to gender and ethnicity.

Heather Nichelle-Peres is a non-traditional student who came to Pacific after earning her business degree at Mt. Hood Community College. She plays Tabitha Brown, who she calls “the bad-ass founder of Pacific.” She also puts her own experience into the character of Samantha, also a transfer student, and into the development of others, such as Ricky, an older student who is mistaken for a professor instead of a student.

“That happened to me more than once,” she said. “It was sort of me being hesitant, not knowing if there was going to be a place for me, and other students being, like, ‘Who is this lady in our class?’ Not student, ‘lady.’”

Students identified transfer students as something of a hidden minority among Pacific’s student body and lifted it up with other issues of identity. That’s what the play is about, after all: exploring and celebrating diversity at Pacific, and bringing to light some of the challenges that have been associated with that diversity.

“Pacific absolutely has some dark history,” Fournier said, referring, in part, to the Indian training school that was once a part of the campus. “We don’t shy away from it. We portray it as we think it happened.

“Maybe worse.”

Ethan Dung, a sophomore computer science major from Ohau, plays Pacific’s first president, Sidney Harper Marsh, as well as a modern Hawaiian student and Henry Sicade, a member of the Puyallup Indian Tribe who attended the training school and got a degree from Pacific.

“He’s very strong-willed,” Dung said of Sicade. “He finds a way to persevere through everything and step up.”

“Basically,” added Wallenfels, “he demanded the same education they would have given to white students. He’s one of those secret heroes of our piece.”

Heroes and triumphs are key to the story. Even while acknowledging difficult moments, the play is about unity, hope and celebration.

Today, the students said they find Pacific an inclusive and welcoming place.

“Nobody is excluded here. Everybody is welcomed with open arms,” Fournier said. “It’s hard to be invisible here. Even as a transfer student, there are so many groups saying ‘Join this, join this, please join this, we’ll give you candy if you join this.’”

Added Dung, “It’s like having another family.”

The Anxious Seat: Pacific Identity Project shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 18-20, as well as at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21. General admission is $7, with discounts for Pacific students, faculty and staff, as well as senior citizens 65 and older. Advanced tickets are available by calling 503-352-2918.