Alaska: MacBeth in Tlingit

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 8 15:54:54 UTC 2007

         'Macbeth' Production Explores Cultural Ties

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Battles are waged to the beat of drums, witches as
land otters slink across the stage and Banquo's ghost dons a raven mask in
a Tlingit language adaptation of Shakespeare's brutal and bloody tale of a
murderous Scottish lord.  Sprung from the rain forests of southeast
Alaska, this Washington, D.C., bound production of "Macbeth" marries the
Elizabethan tragedy with an ancient indigenous culture - an elaborate
conceit that its players say brings new life to both worlds.

The idea took root more than 25 years ago when director Anita
Maynard-Losh, a San Francisco transplant, came to live in the remote
community of Hoonah, Alaska, a largely Tlingit village bounded by Tongass
National Forest and the icy waters of the Inside Passage. She knew
"Macbeth" well, she had taught Shakespeare in schools and as she began to
learn about the Tlingit (pronounced klink-it) culture she was struck by
certain similarities. "When I was in Hoonah, I started seeing these
connections, the society built on clan systems, the connection with the
supernatural which is very strong and the fierce warfare that the Tlingits
were famous for, the Scots also were quite renowned for," Maynard-Losh

Northwest native lore also abounds with moral tales of the treacherous
host, she said, as when Macbeth murders Duncan in his castle. But the
basic element of what it means to be a tribal society, putting the
well-being and survival of the group over individual liberties, is what
really struck her. "That seemed like a huge piece of this play: What
happens when somebody starts not caring about the good of the group and
just caring about their own success," she said. In January 2004 and again
on a statewide tour later that year, Maynard-Losh first put her ideas on
stage directing Tlingit "Macbeth" in English for Juneau's Perseverance

Though now Director of Community Engagement at Washington's Arena Stage,
she agreed to return to Juneau this winter to restage the Perseverance
production for performances March 8-18 at the National Museum of the
American Indian, part of a theater festival called Shakespeare for a New
Generation. This time, however, she wanted to take it to the next level.
The play, at least most of it, was translated into Tlingit, an endangered
language that only Tlingit elders speak fluently. The psychological impact
of bringing Tlingit to the stage has been profound, she said. "To hear
young people speaking Tlingit and acting and talking about big ideas and
big emotions is something so unique, it was really moving and exciting to
hear," Maynard-Losh said.

The decision to base the play in Tlingit won over Lance Twitchell, one of
three new players in the cast and the language coach. Soft-spoken and
earnest - he leads a Tlingit prayer at the end of rehearsals - the
31-year-old former tribal leader is one of about 15 young adults in the
state working toward becoming the first fluent speakers in more than a
generation. "When I heard about the play and heard that (elder) Johnny
Marks was the translator, I thought that was great. Johnny is as good as
they come for Tlingit speakers," he said. Twitchell first began learning
Tlingit 12 years ago from his grandfather, the late Cy Dennis Sr.

"He would say things like 'Deil,' the word for salt, and I'd try to say it
and he'd laugh. My goal was just to get him to not laugh at me," he said.
A simple word, it would seem, but rooted in one of the most difficult and
complex sound systems in the world. According to linguists, Tlingit
contains sounds that are not shared with any other language. Twitchell's
grandfather's generation witnessed a turning point in the history of this
language and culture that are thousands of years old. In the early 1900s,
Native languages across the nation were under attack by missionaries and
government school teachers who considered the languages barbarous and
uncouth. Native children were punished for speaking their own language in
Alaska's segregated schools, a policy that lasted for six decades.

The purge, and eventually the pressure to assimilate, was largely
successful. It is estimated that less than 300 people in the world are
fluent Tlingit speakers, but now a revival is under way among those who
believe, like Twitchell, that language is the life breath of the culture.
It's why he studies Tlingit, teaches it to children, works on interactive
language programs and, though not an actor, jumped at a chance to play
Ross in Tlingit "Macbeth." "You will never get the culture unless you get
the language. And it will never really be carried on unless the language
is carried on. It will just be like a shell of what once was," he said.
Indeed, the journey to the nation's capital carries a special significance
for him.

"There was a calculated effort ... to kill this language and this
culture," said Twitchell. "And yet, we are still here, we are still
speaking, we are still learning in our own different ways and times."


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