No man an island

Palo Alto playwright tells story of SF lawyer, Alaskan people

Environmentalists mourned the death of San Francisco attorney lawyer Luke Cole in 2009. Now, Palo Alto playwright Sharmon J. Hilfinger's latest production, "Arctic Requiem: The True Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina" aims to breathe new life into his story and that of the Inupiat: a native people of Alaska. The show opens this Friday, Oct. 23, with a preview at San Francisco's Z Below theater, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. It runs until Sunday, Nov. 15.

"Arctic Requiem" opens with the demise of Cole, and the narrative proceeds as a mythological raven prepares him to be affixed into Inupiat culture. Music, composed by Joan McMillen, takes the audience through layers of time that tell both the story of Cole's legal battles against the drilling and mining companies as well as the cultural history of the Alaskan islanders he befriended and defended.

"We wanted this to be more than just a documentary about the law cases," explained Hilfinger in a recent interview. "This is really an emotional story about how this group of Inupiat from Alaska and Luke Cole from San Francisco came to know each other and actually came to love each other."

The producers launched a Kickstarter campaign over the summer, which surpassed its initial goal by 165 percent to raise almost $15,000 from 118 backers. Ultimately, they were able to bring on a veteran cast and crew for the production, something Hilfinger said was a goal for the creators. San Francisco's Tracy Ward directs the production.

"The characters in this show are all ages 24-80, so we needed a really mature cast and a rainbow cast if we could," she said. "Working with these really seasoned actors and director has really pushed us and pushed the script forward."

Cole was an activist and lawyer who founded San Francisco's Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment to fight environmental racism, fueled by the conviction that pollution causes disproportionate suffering in low-income and minority communities. He was 46 years old when he died in a head-on collision in Uganda, shortly after settling a six-year case against a zinc mining company for polluting the water around the island of Kivalina, Alaska, population 374. He had just opened another case for the Inupiat tribe against Exxon, Chevron and other oil companies for contributing to global warming and eroding the island.

In September, President Barack Obama toured Alaska in an attempt to highlight some of the effects of climate change. He met with leaders from Kivalina, but a scouting team determined that the small island wasn't fit for the president to visit.

Hilfinger said that while the story of Cole and Kivalina is being told in newspapers, placing it on a stage brings a human element to this political issue.

"This is a play about layers of loss," she said.

The play is meant to be a musical mourning of Cole and the work he was doing, as well as mourning for the Inupiat people who are going to be displaced from their homes on Kivalina, according to Hilfinger.

"The other thing that we wanted to showcase was how (their) culture is being affected, and that's another layer of loss," she added.

The show, presented by Hilfinger's Bootstrap Theater Foundation, plays Thursday-Sunday now through Nov. 15. Tickets are available at zspace.org or by calling 866-811-4111.

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