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'Macbeth' production explores cultural ties with Alaska Natives


By Anne Sutton -- Associated Press

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 rainforests 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, a largely Tlingit village bound 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 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 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 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 '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 fewer 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 lifebreath 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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