Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sunny language

Language: a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.

I always enjoy when I'm out in public and hear, what can only be explained as a gobledygook, of words and phrases in some other language than english, I sit there and try to imagine what they are saying. Or when I hear the quick melody of people speaking French my ears perk up as I want to join in the conversation. But for some, language is lost and can only be found in dated recordings and text books, or there are only a few speakers of the language left. Although I do speak another language, I always wish I could say more than Hello or call someone a pig in Ojibway.

Being in San Diego for a week and working on a project filled with history and words only spoken by a handful of people reminded me of my own loss of language and an opportunity to work with Native Voices is always an adventure. For this year's playwrights retreat, I was asked to be Assistant Director for Tombs of the Vanishing Indian, by Marie Clements. As I had worked on the project years before, I jumped at the chance to be a part of the process again.
The purpose of the retreat is for the writers to hear their words read by professional actors, along with a director and a dramaturg, and in our case a Gabrielino/Tongva consultant.

On our first day there, I had the opportunity to sit with Marie and the consultant, Virginia. As I went through the script to find the pages and lines that had to be spoken by the Lone Woman, it began to look like a daunting task for both the consultant and the actress that would eventually have to read and learn the language. We sat poolside as Virginia explained how she and a few others were trying to bring back this dying language and how she had only begun her journey to learning the language three years ago. Cut to the next morning where Virginia handed us two pages of translated work. As we read through the beginning of the script, the actress sat near Virgina repeating after her this mysterious language. I sat with my recorder catching every nuance.

I later went to check on Virginia, who had moved into the conference room. A small stack of notes and books were strewn across the table as she worked through the meaning and translation, helping bring this vanished language to life. I watched as she debated which words to use as some modern words like room were not used then. I marveled as she flipped through her notebook, which resembled a make-shift dictionary. As our day of rehearsal ended, I helped type in the translation so it could be added to the script, taking care of my keystrokes as my fingers were not used to this particular alignment of letters that formed lost words.
The final reading has come and gone. The labored language work cut to accomodate both time
and meaning and understanding for the audience. I cannot wait to see the production of it next year.