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Breaking down boundaries by presenting 'King Lear' in Gwich'in

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's best-known tragedies. It's been translated into scores of languages, performed countless ways by thousands of different actors. But odds are it's never been done in Gwich'in -- a sub-dialect of the Athabascan language.

Enter "Lear Khehkwaii" (pronounced "heck-why-ee"), an abridged version of the Shakespearean tragedy that embraces the Gwich'in language and culture.

Director Tom Robenolt decided to collaborate with Allan Hayton -- an actor and native Gwich'in speaker from Arctic Village -- to bring the version to schools and communities across the state as part of a language revitalization project.

"Lear Khehkwaii" is part of the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre's third statewide tour, possible thanks to a Shakespeare in American Communities theater initiative. The program, funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, aims to bring Shakespeare to rural America. The production will make stops across much of Alaska's road system, including Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and Healy. It will head off-road, too, with performances in Kotzebue, Nome and the Gwich'in communities of Arctic Village and Fort Yukon.

Those later performances will be especially important to the cast, about half of which is of Native American descent. "I'm willing to try anything to get people interested in our language," Hayton said. "To keep it alive, keep it going."

Translation and tragedy

The production is staged in 1890s Alaska, about the time the Gwich'in people would have made first contact with Europeans.

Much of the Gwich'in dialogue comes through Hayton as Lear and Pete Peters as the fool, Lear's jester who, while seeming incompetent at times, often offers the king good advice. As Lear's life begins to self-destruct, the mix of language goes from about 50-50 Gwich'in and English to almost entirely Gwich'in at the end.

It's not the first time an Alaska Native language as been applied to Shakespeare. In 2004, Juneau's Perseverance Theater performed "Macbeth" in Tlingit. In 2008, Hayton starred as Othello in Aleut.

Hayton spearheaded efforts to translate the script -- a two-part process that involved translating the Shakepearean text into "plain" English and then Gwich'in.

It's a process that's still in progress. Hayton said it was impossible to do a direct translation, since many native Gwich'in speakers would be confused by the stiff language constructions.

"It would be quite a lengthy translation," Hayton said. "Instead we focused on translating concepts and culture, not just words. It comes out on the other end in Gwich'in, though it's a different thing than what Shakespeare would have said."

Hayton is well equipped to take on the challenge of translating King Lear. On Thursday he defended the thesis of his master's degree in applied linguistics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Robenolt said he's moved the focus of the production -- which has been abridged to 90 minutes so it can be presented in schools -- toward the family drama of the tragedy. That focuses on Lear, an aging king who in an effort to divide his kingdom has a dramatic fall from grace. That family focus makes the play more accessible to school children, for whom the production is geared.

But it's hard to ignore the numerous parallels between the story of King Lear and Gwich'in culture. Themes of justice, authority and reconciliation reverberate through the work.

"Shakespeare is timeless," Robenolt said. "The human condition doesn't change within social groups. People are people, this is the way people act."

'Severely endangered' language

According to Kathy Sikorski, a Gwich'in instructor at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, there's roughly 250 fluent speakers of the language left in Alaska (Canada has about 400) out of some 1,100 Gwich'in people. Sikorski herself was only a latent speaker of the language -- who could understand it but not speak it -- before teaching it to herself.

Sikorski said the language isn't being passed on to many children these days. With such a decline, Sikorski said, Gwich'in, like many Alaska Native languages, is "severely endangered." Still, there's some optimism. She's heard of a few people in Venetie teaching the language and has noted a resurgence in younger people -- many in their 30s -- who are interested in keeping the language alive.

"Language learning, especially your own, is very emotional," she said. "It's very emotionally charged if you feel like you aren't able to contribute by not speaking your own language."

Sikorski doesn't have any official involvement in the production, but she was pleased to see an education component included as part of the show. Plus, she added, it's just good for getting the language out there.

"That's a really good awareness for the public," she said. "Like 'hey, there's other languages that are in need of recognition.'"

Making things happen

While Hayton is an experienced actor -- he's been appearing on Alaska stages since 1987 -- he said he was nervous about performing in his native language, a first for him. He hopes that people embrace what he's trying to do through the show.

Robenolt echoed that desire. The theater company has learned a lot doing the production, a process of just "putting our feet to the fire and making something happen.

"The big first step, ridiculous in way," Robenolt said. "I keep saying if we can do King Lear and pull this off, next time we do another Shakespeare, or do Alaskan or Gwich'in stories, it will be much easier."

Earlier this week Hayton said a man wandered into the downtown Fairbanks Empress Theater while the cast was practicing a part of the show that included traditional Native drumming.

He was called into the space by the drumming, Hayton noted. It was the first time the actors had held an audience, no matter how unofficial. Hayton hopes the play can resonate with others as well.

"For me," he said, "that's the major hope."

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

Lear Khehkwaii Performances across Alaska

There will be several public performances of "Lear Khehkwaii" across the state during April.

Fairbanks: 8 p.m. April 5-6; 2 p.m. April 7; 8 p.m. May 10-11 and 2 p.m. May 12 at the Empress Theater

Anchorage: 7 p.m. April 9, Alaska Native Heritage Center

Soldotna: 7 p.m. April 10, Soldotna High School Theater

Healy: 7 p.m. May 7, Tri-Valley Multi-Purpose Room

Tickets are $15 adults, $10 under 18/senior/student/military, available at www.fstalaska.org or at the door 45 minutes prior to each performance.

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