Exploring Cultural Ties: "Macbeth" in Tlingit
Exploring Cultural Ties
Perseverance Theatre's Tlingit version of 'Macbeth' to open in Washington,
Battles are waged to the beat of drums, witches slink across the stage as
land otters, and Banquo's ghost dons a raven mask in a Tlingit language
adaptation of Shakespeare's brutal and bloody tale of a murderous Scottish
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 Hoonah, a largely Tlingit
village bounded by Tongass National Forest and the icy waters of the Inside
She knew "Macbeth" well. She had taught Shakespeare in schools, and as she
began to learn about the Tlingit culture she was struck by certain
"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 said.
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 Theatre.
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
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 who are 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 'eil,' 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
"There was a calculated effort ... to kill this language and this culture,"
Twitchell said. "And yet, we are still here, we are still speaking, we are
still learning in our own different ways and times."