By Greg Russell
In a far corner of the Earth, where humans are few and far between, a “voice” from
the University of Memphis can be heard, one that will soon be on a national stage.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has commissioned the theatrical group Voices of
the South, made up wholly of U of M alumni, to create an original stage play for the
50th anniversary celebration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is located
in northern Alaska. One faculty and one staff member are involved in the production.
Voices of the South performed Place of Enchantment, based on the Muries’ conservation work in Wyoming, in 1992. The group has been commissioned
for a similar project that celebrates the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 50th anniversary.
(photo courtesy of Fowler Photography)
The theatrical piece will pay homage to Olaus and Mardy Murie who were major players
in the establishment of the Arctic Refuge, considered the crown jewel of the 552 national
wildlife refuges in the United States. Mardy Murie is known as the “Grandmother of
the Conservation Movement” and was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the
nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Clinton in 1995. The Muries are known
throughout the world for their conservation work in Alaska and in the Grand Teton
National Park region in Wyoming.
Voices of the South will premiere the show, titled Wild Legacy, in Alaska this December, and the performance will have its Lower 48 debut just outside
of Washington, D.C., in January.
U of M theatre professor Gloria Baxter said the performance is one of only three major
components of the national celebration of the Arctic Refuge, meaning Voices of the
South landed a major coup when it was chosen for the theatrical part of the celebration.
“This is really prestigious for our University and for Voices of the South,” she said.
Baxter, who has taught theatre at the U of M since 1965, is both playwright and stage
director for Wild Legacy. The stage manager and all five cast members are graduates of the Department of Theatre
and Dance: Jerre Dye (BFA ’93), Alice Berry (BFA ’94), Virginia Ralph Matthews (BFA
’98), Geoffrey Wood (BFA ’91), Michael Khanlarian (BFA ’01) and Tiffany McClung (BFA
’95). Berry is also the director of publicity for the U of M’s theatre and dance department.
Baxter has been involved in several highly visible performances during her long tenure
at the U of M.
“Those of us who have known Gloria and her work for several decades know what an unbelievable
talent and intellect worked amongst us, but having that recognized on such a national
scene is a wonderful validation and recognition of the truly inspiring top-level theatre
that has been produced by our Department of Theatre and Dance every year for Memphis
and Mid-South audiences to enjoy,” said College of Communication and Fine Arts Dean
Richard Ranta. “We, of course, are very proud of the recognition she has achieved.”
Baxter said the group would present the play in “narrative theatre,” which is the
signature style of the company. “Narrative theatre” involves the process of adapting
literature not originally written for the stage — “performing the book” in a sense.
Voices of the South will draw from Mardy Murie’s book Two in the Far North, which details the Muries’ years of work to preserve the area that is now the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge. The Muries’ adventures and explorations in the northeastern
corner of Alaska had them traveling via dogsled, floatplane, boat and snowshoes, sometimes
with a baby in tow.
“We will be focusing the show on the three-month expedition that the Muries took to
the Sheenjek river valley of the Brooks Range in 1956. The trip was pivotal in the
campaign to establish the refuge,” Baxter said.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to 45 species of marine and land mammals.
It is considered the crown jewel of the nation’s 552 national wildlife refuges. Voices
of the South will help celebrate the refuge’s 50th anniversary with a national tour.
(photo by Greg Russell)
“The Muries were trying to raise public consciousness about how rare and special the
area that became the national refuge is,” continued Baxter. “We are trying to show
that the legacy is ours to continue.”
Baxter traveled to the Arctic Refuge with The Murie Center in late August of 2001.
She wrote at the time, “Here in the Arctic Refuge at the edge of winter, the sights
and sounds are singular. A haunting melody on a solo flute. This is a landscape complete
in and of itself. Human presence seems neither its subject nor its object …”
Voices of the South was selected based on a previous work the group had done on a
similar project. On the occasion of Mardy Murie’s 100th birthday in 2002, the group performed Place of Enchantment, based on the Muries’ conservation work in the Teton area of Wyoming.
“That piece was wonderfully received and had to do with our being asked to create
this piece as well,” Baxter said.
The upcoming theatrical piece will be about 90 minutes in length and will be performed
in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Homer, Alaska, from Dec. 1-14. Tour engagements will continue
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also commissioned a documentary film and a
large photo exhibition that will examine the special significance of the refuge.
The Arctic Refuge is one of the few true remaining wilderness areas left in the world.
Its 19.2 million acres is inhabited by 45 species of marine and land mammals, including
caribou, Dall sheep, polar and grizzly bears and wolves. Large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes continue there, free of human control
or manipulation. There are no roads in the area, which can only be accessed by foot
Preview performances of Wild Legacy can be seen in Memphis at the Evergreen Theatre (formerly the Circuit Playhouse)
Nov. 12-14 and Nov. 18-21.