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Learning the language: Play on apartheid treats audiences to Xhosa

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Karen Slack plays one of her 24 characters in The Syringa - Tree at Theatreworks.
  • Karen Slack plays one of her 24 characters in The Syringa Tree at Theatreworks.

It's not every actor who learns a new language for a part. For the play The Syringa Tree, performer Karen Slack learned Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa.

"Xhosa is a click language," explains Slack. "I learned full songs that I sing, and I also learned the Black South African National Anthem."

Click languages are so named because of the sound of the tongue being sucked against another part of the mouth. Xhosa uses 15 different types of clicks: five clicks made with the tongue behind the teeth, five made with the tongue at the cheek, and five with the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth.

In the play, Slack alone plays a remarkable ensemble of 24 characters. The actor uses sightline a character's literal line of vision to delineate each character for the audience, and herself. At the beginning of the play, the main character, Lizzy, is 6 years old. So when she speaks to adults, she looks up. When adults speak to her, they look down.

"That's how I delineate it in my mind: who's taller than who," Slack says. "It sounds crazy, and it really sort of is, but I see the person I'm talking to."

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The play's conflict centers on Lizzy's relationship with Salamina, the family maid. Lizzy is unaware that she and Salamina are not related, though Lizzy is white and Salamina is black. Slack explains that the play explores how Lizzy discovers the very system in which she's growing up.

"How do you compartmentalize that: apartheid, and you're 6 years old?" she asks.

The Syringa Tree

Theatreworks Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater,

3955 Cragwood Drive

Feb. 1-3 and 8-10, 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 4 and 11, 4 p.m.

Tickets: $22-$25; call 262-3232 for more.

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