ABIR: ana ma baAraf. ma bafakker fee hattaree’a. bihimmish. wa kamaan aal innu wajhit nazarak raheebeh. (I don’t know. I don’t even think of it that way. It doesn’t matter. He also said you have a unique scholarly voice.)
ADHAM: Aashaan bahki maA lahjeh. (Because it comes with an accent.)
ABIR: ana mish Aarfeh leish inseet addeish inta zaki. al rujjaal illi baArafu— (I don’t know why you’ve forgotten how smart you are. The man I met—)
ADHAM: al rujjaal illi ibteArafee!— (The man you met!—)
ABIR: —kan zaki, wa mit’akkid min nafsu, wa ma ihtammish eish al naas bifakru fee. (—Was smart, and sure of himself, and didn’t care about what anyone thought.)
ADHAM: yumkin haada al rujjaal mish ana. (Well, maybe that wasn’t really me.) [He looks at her.] yumkin haada ana. (Maybe this is me.) —The Hour of Feeling
When Mona Mansour wrote The Hour of Feeling, a play about a Palestinian couple who travel to London, she wanted to have her characters speak Arabic while abroad. But being an American playwright, she unknowingly put words in their mouths that were decidedly non-Palestinian in sentiment.
In a self-analytic moment in the play, Adham, a poetry scholar, says to his wife Abir, “Well, maybe that wasn’t really me. Maybe this is me.” But when Hadi Tabbal, the Lebanese-born actor playing Adham in the play’s premiere production, encountered these lines in rehearsal, he told Mansour straight out, “We don’t have a translation for that.”
That notion of malleable identity is “a very American-English concept,” Mansour learned. “What are we saying, then?” she wonders. “It makes you think about what you have written.”
The double-sided question of what is being said and how to say it is popping up more frequently these days in bilingual plays, which differ from standard plays in a key respect: They bring in another language to help get the point across.
For Mansour’s play, which debuted at the 2012 Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, the playwright was assisted with Arabic translation and dramaturgy by Ismail Khalidi (the Lebanese-born son of Palestinians). The characters’ native tongue becomes a tool to delineate cultural boundaries, and to convey the sense of alienation that Adham feels as he delivers a lecture in London on William Wordsworth. It also allows Mansour to present Arabic in a rarely heard context, to listeners more used to hearing that language via newsreels of Middle Eastern unrest. “I loved the idea that American audiences were hearing a man doubt himself, be rude to his wife or tell her that she’s beautiful, all in Arabic,” declares Mansour.
And sometimes when working in another language, how something is said suddenly becomes more important than the words themselves. In Chinglish by David Henry Hwang—with translation by Candace Mui Ngam Chong—the character Daniel Cavanaugh, an American businessman who travels to China, asks Xi Yan, the Chinese woman he loves, how to say “I love you” in Mandarin. The correct term is
我爱你. But Cavanaugh mispronounces the phrase tonally, moving comically from variations such as 蜗牛爱母牛 (snail loves cow) to 青蛙爱小便 (frog loves to pee).
“If you get something wrong in English, chances are the mistake is grammatical, because pronunciation is not difficult—it’s the grammar that’s hard,” offers Hwang, who admits he’s not fluent in Mandarin. “But if you get something wrong in Chinese, it’s probably the word itself, because Chinese grammar is easy. If you grew up in the West, you don’t understand tonality, so chances are you’re not saying the right word.”
Traditionally, plays in which a foreign language would be appropriate have simply ignored its usage in favor of English, or foreign words and phrases are sprinkled intermittently throughout as a token reminder. Miss Saigon, for example, features an American soldier stationed in a Vietnam where the natives all conveniently speak perfect English. In West Side Story, the film and the stage show, Puerto Rican characters speak in heavily accented English, even to each other, with the occasional Spanish term thrown in (who could forget Natalie Wood’s “Bernarrrdo”?). Though the 2009 Broadway revival attempted to be more realistic—Spanish was added to the book and a number of the songs were translated into Spanish by Lin-Manuel Miranda—the bilingual concept did not last the entire run of the show, and the all-English score was restored for the touring production.
“We always have these movies and plays where we just duck the questions of language,” notes Hwang. “An American will go to another country and the people in that country will speak English with, whatever, Brazilian accents…it’s not that experience at all in real life.”
So in Chinglish, Hwang has Cavanaugh sit in scene after scene as the dialogue proceeds in Mandarin—and he, as the archetypical monolingual American, cannot understand a word. Confusion ensues. Chinglish is arguably the highest-profile bilingual play of our day, having premiered at Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2011, hit Broadway and generated talks for a film adaptation. It ran at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston in late 2012 and is currently playing at California’s South Coast Repertory, in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, through Feb. 24. That production will also tour next month to Hong Kong (see page 58).
At their best, bilingual plays eschew the traditional signifiers of foreignness or multiculturalism by opting for full-on realism—characters speak in another language and switch tongues effortlessly when it’s called for. They don’t settle for a one-off, as in West Side Story—instead, these other languages are a consistent presence throughout the play, popping up within English dialogue, in whole scenes and in monologues. These plays are multicultural in language and scope.
The story of America is one of melding races and cultures. Considering the myriad of languages that immigrants brought with them, it should be no surprise when foreign words show up on the American stage from time to time. Besides, what is English if not a language based on a patchwork of etymologies? And what is a play if not an interplay of language?
Guapa, by Caridad Svich, is about a mixed-race Latino family living along the Texas-Mexico border. Its characters are bilingual, with the title character herself being trilingual in English, Spanish and Quechua, the language of the indigenous people in the central Andes of South America. They speak to each other and sing in Spanish and frequently pepper their English phrases with Spanish words: Rolanda calls the young people under her care mi’ja, a contraction of mi hija (“my daughter”), a term of endearment used for children.
“The play is acknowledging that all of these languages are here, and that’s how we live on a daily basis, with constant code-switching, whether we’re in a barrio setting or not,” suggests Svich, who is fluent in Spanish. “And with the history of Texas being so multi-everything—French, Spanish, et cetera—the mix is an essential part of the cultural history.” Guapa had a National New Play Network rolling premiere at Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Ariz., and Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, Ind., and is slated for production at Miracle Theatre Group in Portland, Ore., March 21–April 13.
Playing with English and Spanish words is nothing new for Svich, who created a bilingual version (as well as all-Spanish and all-English versions) of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Svich’s bilingual adaptation of Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies premieres at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis April 5–27 (where her bilingual Spirits also premiered in 2010).
For Guapa, Svich chose to not only incorporate Spanish but also Quechua. She does her own translations. “In Latin American culture, indigenous languages are brushed aside often, especially in representation onstage,” Svich points out. “What about all of these other languages that people still speak and that don’t get heard?”
Of course, language is not only a spoken construction. Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil, who has experience doing voicing (vocally interpreting sign language) for deaf actors, was researching Sanskrit when she realized that there was an affinity between that language and American Sign Language. The play that ensued from that discovery was Love Person; the title is the literal translation of the ASL term for “lover.”
Love Person—which premiered at Mixed Blood in 2008, where Kapil is a resident artist, and was most recently produced at Company One in Boston—contains scenes in which a lesbian couple, Maggie and her deaf partner Free, converse in ASL, as well as scenes where Maggie is acting as her “love person’s” interpreter. Supertitles are projected for those not fluent in ASL, and the show also contains passages of Sanskrit poetry. In the play, the language differences are a metaphor for the stagnation that tends to happen in long-term relationships.
“If you’re Maggie, an English professor, and you can’t communicate with your lover because she lives in ASL, that situation becomes more intense than a man and a woman just growing apart,” says Kapil, who is familiar with but not fluent in ASL. “Using these language variations allowed me to tell the story of communication and to take it to another level.”
For plays presented in ASL, translation occurs primarily during rehearsals, a collaborative effort between the sign master and the actors (for the Mixed Blood production, Raymond Luczak was the sign master). Because ASL is communicated through the hands and face, it cannot be written down. “That’s largely why it’s not diluted,” says Kapil. “English has more words than most languages because it absorbs more synonyms. But there is an incredible poetic quality and simplicity in Sanskrit and ASL—signing is so specific. I love watching ASL onstage.”
Do audiences respond the same way? Love Person has long scenes in ASL, during which it’s completely silent, and theatregoers need to read the actors’ facial expressions and the supertitles. “The first silent scene is where people start to shuffle, realizing it’s going to be really quiet in the theatre,” says Kapil with a laugh. “The play asks for a lot of active listening. But I have yet to see an audience that is not on board after the first few moments.”
When casting began for Chinglish at the Goodman, the trickiest parts to cast were not the Chinese characters—instead it was Peter Timms, who is written as a British Caucasian male in his forties (no problem) who is (here’s the kicker) fluent in English and Mandarin.
“You could write a whole different play about trying to find a Caucasian male who could speak fluent Mandarin,” jokes Robert Falls, the Goodman’s artistic director. “We worked on that for months, and found two men in Chicago, four in Australia and two in London. We ultimately narrowed it down to Stephen Pucci, who was not as experienced an actor and was not 40 years old.”
More often than not, in order to speak two languages onstage comfortably—and sometimes interweave them—the actors playing those roles need to be fluent in both languages as well. “If we were going to have any credibility whatsoever with the people who spoke the language, we had to hire actors who were legitimately bilingual,” asserts Hwang. “During the initial Goodman production, I was rewriting until the end. What happens when I give them three new pages and they have to put it in that night? Unless you actually speak the language, it’s really unlikely that you could learn three new pages by rote.”
Svich admits that the requirement to hire bilingual actors can make a play a hard sell to theatres. “I spent a whole year pitching Guapa!” she exclaims. “And often the response I would get was, ‘Yes, we do Latino work, but we don’t have actors.’ Really!?”
Yet when it works—when the words flow naturally off the actors’ tongues—bilingual theatre can make for a transformative experience for the audience. Mansour recounts seeing Tabbal, who is fluent in Lebanese and classical Arabic, and Rasha Zamamiri, who knows Palestinian Arabic, rev up the energy in The Hour of Feeling at Humana. “It was electric,” she says, slapping her hands together, “because they were speaking in their first language. It had all this visceral feeling!”
Sarah Wallis had a similar experience in the Alliance Theatre of Atlanta’s production of Meg Miroshnik’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, which contains Russian words and phrases within English dialogue and required the actress to switch between the two languages, often in the same sentence. The catch is that Wallis didn’t know Russian, so the Alliance brought in a dialect coach. “Once I figured out how to shape my mouth, I couldn’t say zhili byli anymore without going in the back of my throat,” says Wallis, describing the process of learning the Russian term for “once upon a time.” “Russian culture is a very different culture from Western culture. There’s so much darkness and humor in their fairy tales, so saying ‘once upon a time’ in English doesn’t give you the right feeling.” The Alliance also recently premiered a bilingual play for its young-audience program, an English-Spanish variation on Waiting for Godot from a clown angle, called Waiting for Balloon.
With the popularity of international festivals such as Under the Radar at the Public Theater or the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, where shows are often presented entirely in another language, it seems that audiences are game to go beyond English. For the Goodman, Chinglish was the best-selling new play in the theatre’s history. And at Mixed Blood, where 35 percent of the audience self-identify as being bilingual in English and Spanish, every season since 2005 has featured bilingual works, and the shows in Spanish and English continue to be the theatre’s most successful every season. Artistic director Jack Reuler believes that putting different languages onstage is a way to attract a new crowd.
“As the American theatre is finding new markets, as the old audiences are dwindling, there are huge populations of people waiting to be invited into the theatre, and language is one way of doing it,” Reuler believes. “And if a theatre does a show in a language other than English, it’s probably the only entertainment in that language in that community. It immediately expands to an audience who are hungry to see themselves onstage.” He also adds a disclaimer—that attracting a new audience “should be the product, not the why.”
For Hwang, the most satisfying part of Chinglish was seeing the diversity in the house during the show’s run on Broadway. “You had non-Asians, Asian-Americans, Chinese nationals and people from Taiwan, and they all laughed together,” Hwang recalls. “I thought that was moving.”
Hwang believes multilingual plays mark a generational change, a sign that current playwrights are more comfortable with their diverse backgrounds and more willing to let those influences seep onstage. “When I was coming up, the tendency was that Asian-Americans didn’t want to be associated with the root culture,” he says. “But nowadays, I think there’s more of an acceptance of those different influences. Everybody is more transcultural now.”
And multilingual plays show that even though the words may be different, the emotions and predicaments that theatre examines are universal. Being able to hear dialogue in another language is to understand that there’s not only one way of speaking—or thinking. “It’s the world,” Kapil says simply. “And the world involves having to deal with people who don’t speak your language, who don’t have the same worldview that you do.”