Haida language play premieres this weekend

  • May. 28, 2008 6:00 p.m.

By Heather Ramsay-Although the Haida language will be centre stage, playwrights say the story of a young boy who breaks ancient taboos by gambling with supernaturals will be an enjoyable spectacle whether the audience understands the words or not. Writer Jaalen Edenshaw says the play, Sinxii’gangu or “Sounding Gambling Sticks,” comes from an old story told by Tom Price and recorded by John Swanton in the early 1900s. In it, a young boy learns to gamble and becomes very skilled at it, so skilled that he challenges the supernaturals to play. When he loses everything, including his village, family and friends, he journeys to the undersea and sky worlds to try and make things right. Bringing the Haida language into everyday life was a key motivation for the playwright. Although the language may be in a critical stage, Jaalen says he wanted to show people Haida was still a living language. “I wanted to explore new ways of getting Haida language into the community and it was a good way to force myself and others to learn some,” he says. So in 2004, he started to work on the piece and later got his brother Gwaai Edenshaw involved as well. The brothers ended up writing the play in English and enlisting Naaniis Mary Swanson and Norma Adams as well as Tsinii Stephen Brown to translate it into Haida. Jaalen said this was an interesting part of the process as some parts did not translate well. So Tsinii Stephen suggested different ways of saying things that matched the Haida way of thinking, he said. Jaalen thinks the performers have benefited the most from the play as they’ve had to learn a lot of Haida by memorizing their lines. The young lead actor Jeffery Williams, has 50 lines to perform. In all 15 performers act and dance in the play. Gwaai says although much of the script may go over the audience’s head, the story will still shine through. “That’s what the acting is for, to tell the story without words,” he says. He also warns that those used to the Western form of storytelling may spend some time figuring out who is good and who is bad in the tale. New masks and amazing costumes along with the singing and dancing involved in the show will all contribute to the spectacle, making the show enjoyable, no matter what. Some performers will wear their own regalia in the show, but other costumes have been created by Su-san Brown and new masks were carved by Gwaai, Donnie Edenshaw and Beau Dick. Many others have contributed their creativity to this unique event, including director Toby Sanmiya and producer Mike McQuade. Sherri Burton is the stage manager and Joe Kaltiernyk created the stage set. Nika Collison choreographed the dancers and composed a new song for the show. Vern Williams and Gwaai also composed new songs. The show runs two nights, the first in Masset on May 30 at G.M. Dawson Secondary and then on May 31 in Skidegate at the Haida Heritage Centre. Both shows start at 7pm and tickets are $15 at the door. Jaalen says they were invited to do the play in Vancouver, but don’t have any immediate plans to go. “Everyone is scattering in a million different directions after this,” he says. But this play is the first of many, says Gwaai, who went to a theatre-based high school, but has focused on carving for the last 10 years. “We’ve already got our next project outlined,” he says. Old stories are good models, he says, but he and his brother may experiment with a more contemporary tale.

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