With 'Ajijaak on Turtle Island,' Orlando ex-pat Heather Henson aims to decolonize the theater system

With 'Ajijaak on Turtle Island,' Orlando ex-pat Heather Henson aims to decolonize the theater system
Photo by Seth Kubersky

Kong. Aladdin. Beetlejuice. Simba. Potter. Right now, Broadway theaters are bursting at the seams with shows starring mythical characters whose singular names should be familiar to Floridians, and whose stories are being brought to life through a combination of high-tech wizardry and old-fashioned stagecraft. Last week, you could have added "Ajijaak" to that list, as a fable from the mind of Heather Henson – another Orlando ex-pat with a legendary name – made its debut on the Great White Way.

It's 90 minutes until showtime at Manhattan's New Victory Theater, and I'm attempting to interview Henson in the colorful lobby amid crane-themed crafts and a steady stream of well-wishers. I've flown up to the snow-blanketed city to attend the closing weekend of Ajijaak on Turtle Island's limited run in Times Square. It's been nearly five years since Henson officially moved away from Florida, and even longer since I directed her in a live version of Labyrinth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but it seems like old times as she shares with me the tale of how her latest ecologically minded migration landed on 42nd Street.

Heather founded Ibex Puppetry in 2000 and presented the original Orlando Puppet Festival and Sing-Along With The Muppet Movie in our town before moving to New York when her late mother became ill. From the beginning, her production company had strong Central Florida ties, starting with its name: "I went to Busch Gardens Tampa, and I remember going to the cafeteria where they had all the animals on the wall. I remember looking at the sable and the ibex. I really wanted to have a hoof stock as my animal logo – I was looking at the walls with all these mounted heads and I liked the ones with the rounded horns."

Henson's latest show is based on original storyboards she drew, and was created in collaboration with co-director/writer Ty Defoe and Native American musicians Dawn Avery and Kevin Tarrant, but it also features elements that trace back to shows she originally developed in Orlando, such as Panther & Crane and Celebration of Flight. The music-filled play follows the migration of Ajijaak, an endangered whooping crane, as she crosses the North American continent (or "Turtle Island," as indigenous peoples call it) collecting herbal medicines and meeting fellow animals in her quest to conquer the monstrous Mishibizhiw, a slumbering demon summoned by human-driven environmental degradation.

With striking video projections by Katherine Freer, avian kites by Orlando's Curtiss Lee Mitchell and puppets built by the famous Jim Henson Creature Shop, Ajijaak on Turtle Island is easily the most visually impressive show Ibex has ever produced. And Defoe's script deftly integrates indigenous traditions with accessible contemporary language, eliciting enthusiastic vocal participation from the sold-out audience – a significant percentage of whom, including the Unkechaug elected chief whose blessing began the show, represented local Native American tribes.

According to Henson, Ajijaak evolved over several incarnations through a process she compares to "baking a cake." Though she performed on stage in prior versions, she says the latest production is "a very different experience. This show is about supporting the Native American community." With Ajijaak, Henson makes an effort toward "decolonizing the theater system ... It's been a long process of trying to uplift these voices and shine a light on these communities." Casting a Native American performer in the role Heather previously puppeteered "changed the dynamics of the story" in a positive way. "It's really wonderful [to] finally get to see the whole picture, but I do want to get my butt up on stage again."

Departing Orlando meant leaving behind "things that I really care about, people I care about, projects I care about"; Henson is especially grateful to the Big Potato Foundation in Apopka for keeping Ibex's Endangered Species Parade going. But she feels the move to New York was essential for developing her art.

"I do not think the Native American process could happen in Orlando," she says. "There's a real strong diversity of Native Americans here [and] it's been an amazing learning experience working with Native American cultures here. I've gone to grad school and back in terms of cultural sensitivity."

Even so, Henson still has fond feelings for "warm and friendly" Orlando, and says she misses walking to Lake Eola and going to the farmers market. While Ajijaak might be remounted in Nebraska or California, Heather is "very inspired" by the Orlando Fringe Festival and is considering creating a "cathartic" autobiographical monologue for it. Here's hoping the lottery gods smile on her if and when she finally does.

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