‘Our Voices Will Be Heard’ brings child sexual abuse to the forefront

"Our Voices Will Be Heard" playwright Vera Starbard (right) and Perseverance Theatre Executive Artistic Director Art Rotch. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

“Our Voices Will Be Heard” playwright Vera Starbard (right) and Perseverance Theatre Executive Artistic Director Art Rotch. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

Set in a fictional Tlingit village in the late 19th century, “Our Voices Will Be Heard” is Vera Starbard’s semi-autobiographical story of a mother whose daughter is sexually abused by a relative. The show premiered Friday at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau and will play in Anchorage in February.

The play actually began as a short story Starbard wrote when she was 18 years old. It came together at an all-night diner. She began writing at 10 p.m. and didn’t stop until 4 a.m.

“I sat there and the waitress kept bringing me diet sodas, and it was done,” Starbard said. “While I did a few revisions to it, the whole story was finally told. And it was a huge kind of healing moment in my life and I never really did anything with it.”

About 10 years later, she heard about the Alaska Native Playwrights Project and decided to apply. She got in and during the process began to understand the story she wanted to tell was more than just her own.

One of the most difficult experiences she had when writing the play came about halfway through the yearlong project.

“I had a relative, a cousin, who I grew up with like a brother, who became an abuser himself.”

It hit her hard. Here she was, trying to artfully make sense of the sexual abuse she had experienced as a child and she learns her cousin was an abuser. Then she finds out he’d been abused by the same uncle who had hurt her.

“It was surprising to me that I still loved him,” Starbard said. “I loved him like a brother and that didn’t change because of these things he had done. (I struggled within) myself to come to terms with not wanting that person to be around children anymore and … still caring about him and caring about what happened to him. I really took that into the play.”

The play is quite different from the story Starbard wrote when she was 18. That version, she said, was from the perspective of a child. The younger Vera saw her abuser as a “boogeyman,” an evil figure to be despised, not pitied or missed.

“There’s a scene in there where the mother is talking to Raven and sort of going through these emotions herself where she does confess that she misses this family who turned against her and hurt her child,” she said. “That would not have been in there when I was 18.”

A promotional image for "Our Voices Will Be Heard" by Vera Starbard. (Image courtesy of Perseverance Theatre)

A promotional image for “Our Voices Will Be Heard” by Vera Starbard. (Image courtesy of Perseverance Theatre)

In the years since her all-nighter at the diner, Starbard came to understand what her own mother endured. She saw the toll it took on her to report her own brother. She realized how lucky she was to have a mother who steadfastly supported her despite being ostracized by family members who preferred the abuse go unaddressed.

Three days before the first reading of the play in Anchorage, Starbard told her mother what it was about.

“She actually thanked me at the end of the reading,” Starbard said. “It doesn’t show mother being perfect but it shows a mother never giving up. That’s what I really wanted to talk about; that was important to me and my life that I had a mother who never gave up even though she was struggling herself.”

Starbard’s story is not unique. Alaska consistently has one of the highest rates of child sexual abuse, and child abuse in general, in the nation. Despite that, state lawmakers spent two years debating a bill to require K-12 students receive age-appropriate education on sexual abuse and teen dating violence. Starbard wrote letters and testified at the capitol in favor of Erin’s Law, which eventually was adopted as the Alaska Safe Children’s Act.

As Starbard went through the process of writing, revising and holding readings for the play, she saw signs that more education about child abuse is sorely needed.

“Since this has come out, a lot of people have come up and some of them have said, ‘Well, I’ve never been abused, but –’ and then they tell some story and I realize — no. That’s abuse. That really is abuse. And they genuinely don’t see it that way because it’s been minimalized in their own life.”

Starbard said she hopes people who see the play leave feeling hopeful and energized.

“I think it’s a pretty light-giving play, a play that gives healing,” Starbard said. “It’s not something that they’re going to walk away from and wonder what to do. … They’re actually (going to) be motivated to do something, to act, to find some hope.”

In Juneau, the play runs through Feb. 7. A representative from SEARHC or AWARE will be available after each showing. Volunteers from Standing Together Against Rape will be present when the play shows in Anchorage.

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