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Exploring Cultural Ties: "Macbeth" in Tlingit

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.juneauempire.com/stories/030807/sta_20070308024.shtml Exploring Cultural Ties Perseverance Theatre s Tlingit version of Macbeth to open in
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 10, 2007

      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
      for him.

      "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."
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