John Fisher Writes & Directs “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi”

ishi_credit1Playwright John Fisher used to stroll in the Sutro Forest near Mount Parnassus, the woods behind UCSF where Ishi once lived. He felt an immediate connection to the story of one of the last surviving members of the Yahi tribe, who left his home and was housed and studied at the University of California’s Hearst Museum from 1911-16. Fisher’s play Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, opens at UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) at Zellerbach Playhouse on March 2, running through March 11. Fisher, himself a graduate of UC Berkeley’s PhD Program in Dramatic Art, returns to direct the play, which follows the 100th Centennial of Ishi’s appearance in Oroville, California, in 1911.

The story follows last remaining member of the Yahi tribe, dubbed “Ishi” (the Yahi word or “Man”). After his discovery in 1911, Ishi was brought to UC’s Anthropology Museum by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber as an object of study, where he lived and worked for 5 years helping reconstruct Yahi culture for his “keepers” before his death from tuberculosis in 1916. The historical fiction provides a touching, revealing and tender look at the effect of “civilized” life on Ishi, and a key moment in UC Berkeley’s history.

“In America, there is a great sense of responsibility for what we did to the Native Americans,” says Fisher. “But in California, there is this misconception that what happened was far away – it happened to the Plains Indians, or during the Trail of Tears. If I have any message to convey, it is that it happened right here. We had our own genocide in Northern California. And that is what is missing from this story.”

Fisher, whose plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Haven (Yale) and on HBO as a part of the annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, is a lecturer in TDPS and the Artistic Director of San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros. “As a playwright, I am very interested in the Bay Area as a locality. A lot of American stories told onstage seem very East Coast to me. Berkeley and San Francisco are distinct entities, and I see all my stories as unique to the Bay Area.”

The story is also distinctive to UC Berkeley. During a time when many are contemplating the future of the UC system, Ishi: The Last of the Yahi sheds light on the university’s past, helping us understand what it means to be a member of the university community today. Audiences will recognize key players in the university’s history, including Anthropology Professors Kroeber and T.T. Waterman, philanthropist Phoebe Hearst (founder of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology), and Dr. Saxton Pope, who befriends Ishi and eventually, against Ishi’s wishes, autopsies him and dissects his brain following his death. The large cast, made up of UC Berkeley students, also features TDPS Acting Lecturer, Director of the ACT Conservatory’s Summer Training Congress and renowned professional actor Christopher Herold in the role of Alfred Kroeber.

“This story is timely because it has not been completely told,” says Fisher. A previous version of Ishi: The Last of the Yahi premiered in 2008 at Theater Rhinoceros in San Francisco, also directed by Fisher. This version focuses more on the complex relationship between Ishi and Kroeber, and the effect they had on one another. “Research comes with a lot of responsibilities,” explains Fisher. “And the story of Ishi shows us that the more money and ambition become involved, people start doing strange things. All is not quiet within the ivory tower.”

“In the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, we periodically try to create opportunities for students and acting faculty to work together in a production,” says Herold.  “It’s a wonderful way to extend the teacher/student relationship into the realm of artistic collaboration, a process which allows us to discover new and vibrant ways of interacting.”

Fisher’s hope is that, audiences will not only be entertained by the performance, but also stirred to learn more about Ishi and this crucal story in California’s history. “Theater is meant to be exciting, digging deeply into what motivates people to do both good and bad things,” he says. “This is the ultimate California adventure story. But there is darkness in all adventure.”


Ishi: The Last of the Yahi opens on Friday, March 2 at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus and runs weekends through Sunday, March 11. Performance times are as follows:

March 2, 3, 9, 10 – 8pm; March 4, 11 – 2pm

A post-show discussion with the Playwright/Director and members of the cast will take place after the matinee on Saturday, March 4.


Written by Marni Davis