NEA Arts Magazine

Facing the Water

Artists Repertory Theatre's Production of The Ghosts of Celilo

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Chenoa Egawa

Chenoa Egawa portrays one of the ghost narrators in Artists Repertory Theatre's production of The Ghosts of Celilo. Photo by Owen Carey.

Marv Ross had never been so nervous in his life. The former member of the 1980s rock band Quuarterflash was standing before an audience of Native-American leaders, all members of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. He was seeking the blessing of the tribe for a new project of his: writing a musical to commemorate Native-American ways that were lost when the Dalles Dam Vooded the Columbia River in 1957. He expected criticism. What he got, instead, were memories. The commission members recognized many relatives in the historic photos he displayed. "That's my grandfather," one elder said. "That's my aunt," pointed out another.

Many of those same tribal leaders found themselves in the audience in Portland, Oregon, when the musical Ross wrote, The Ghosts of Celilo, opened in September 2007. Artists Repertory Theatre produced the show at the Newmark Theatre at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. For Ross, the premiere capped roughly 10 years of researching a story that's become a scourge in the Pacific Northwest. In order to build the Dalles Dam, an unprecedented source of hydroelectric power, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers displaced a band of about 200 mid-Columbia Indians, known as the River People.

The Ghosts of Celilo, directed by Greg Tamblyn, was created by Ross, Thomas Morning Owl, and Tom Hampson based on their research and interviews. Ross, Mel Kubik, and Native musicians Chenoa Egawa and Arlie Neskahi collaboratively composed the score. The plot focuses on Chokey Jim and Train, two Indian boys kidnapped to be raised in a Christian boarding school, and their quest to escape the boarding school and return to Celilo Falls to catch their ceremonial first salmon before the Dalles Dam Voods their village. Four ghosts trapped at the bottom of the Columbia River narrate the story.

"Profoundly moving" is how Oregonian newspaper critic Marty Hughley summed up the show. Audience members agreed. In the weeks that followed the show's opening, Ross received mail from a cross-section of community members, including letters of praise from older Native Americans who were raised in boarding schools like Chokey Jim's.

Jill Baum, the theater's managing director, said that receiving the NEA grant was instrumental in helping Artists Rep secure additional grants from the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Altogether, civic and philanthropic groups donated more than $150,000 to the theater's production costs for the play. The Ghosts of Celilo also proved to be an unexpected boon at the box office, taking in three times Artists Rep's normal ticket revenue. The show represents musical theater in its rarest and finest form: entertaining, profit-making, and socially redeeming.