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By Charles Paolino



originally published: 02/10/2022

A look at the language of

Most of us who see the season-opening play at George Street Theater—“Her Portmanteau” by Mfoniso Udofia—will hear the Ibibio language of Nigeria for the first time.

The George Street Society has two specialists on board to make sure we can hear.

“Her Portmanteau”, directed by Laiona Michelle, will be presented from October 11 to 30 at the New Brunswick Center for the Performing Arts. It is part of a projected cycle of nine plays in which Udofia presents the experiences of Abasiama Ufot, a Nigerian-born woman who immigrated to the United States.

Abasiama has two daughters, one, Iniabasi Ekpeyong, from a failed marriage in Nigeria, and the other, Adiaha Ufot, from a long but troubled marriage in the United States. In this play, Iniabasi has just arrived in New York believing that she and her young son, Kufre, still in Nigeria, will live with Abasiama in Massachusetts.

The encounter between these women, which takes place mostly in Adiaha’s small New York apartment, is fraught with tension, some endemic to the immigrant experience and some stemming from situations that could affect families anywhere.

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In the first line of the play, Iniabasi, fresh off the plane at JFK International Airport, talks over the phone to her son’s caretaker in Nigeria: “Uwem, mmeyem ita? ike? ye Kufre” – “Uwem, I want to talk to Kufre.”

In an approach not unique to this play, this line and Ibibio’s other occasional dialogue is not translated for the audience who must understand the circumstances if not the literal statements of scene context.

None of the actors appearing in “Her Suitcase” speak Ibibio, which is one of hundreds of languages ​​and dialects spoken in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

A look at the language of

The cast of ‘Her Portmanteau’ – (LR) Jennean Farmer, Shannon Harris and Mattilyn Rochester Kravitz

The task of training players to speak the language correctly falls to Ebbe Bassey, a Bronx-born actress, writer and producer who grew up in Nigeria.

Bassey said she became involved in the project when she attended a reading of a play by Udofia and realized that she and the playwright had roots in the same region of Nigeria. Since then she has worked with any theater company to put on a play by Udofia.

“My job,” Bassey said, “is to get the actors to pronounce the language correctly so that someone in the audience who understands the lines doesn’t say, ‘That’s not a native speaker.’

This is no small feat, she says, because Ibibio, like every language, has its unique characteristics, some of which are unknown in English.

“One particular challenge actors face is tone,” Bassey said. “A word can mean two or three different things. I want to get them as close to the correct inflection as possible so they don’t say something that’s the opposite of what they mean.

Bassey has stated that she uses the music to acclimate the actors to Ibibio’s rhythmic nature, also a feature unfamiliar to English.

Also, she said, “there are certain sounds in Ibibio that don’t exist in English, and that involves mouth formation and tongue placement.” Ibibio, for example, uses consonant combinations that don’t exist in English, and, she says, “Americans are used to blowing up the letter ‘t.’ At Ibibio, we don’t; the ‘t’ stops at the roof of the mouth.

This language issue is nuanced in “Her Suitcase” in part because one character, Iniabasi, has spent his entire life thus far in Nigeria; another, Abasiama, spent long periods in Nigeria and the United States; and the third, Adiaha, has always lived in the United States. These differences affect their way of speaking, and in particular the accent of their English.

Enter Maggie Surovell, comedian, screenwriter, director and, since 2005, dialect coach who helps actors with their accents. Surovell said she was working with the actors on three elements of Ibibio that would affect the accent: “playful” musicality, muscularity (“Each accent has a set of muscles that you use when speaking”) and pronunciation. words. .

A look at the language of

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“I work with the actors on how to bring salient features of the language into the accent,” Surovell said.

What that means is different for each of the characters, she explained. Iniabasi, who has just arrived from Nigeria, has the most pronounced accent. Abasiama, having spent decades in the United States, has a less pronounced accent. For example, she doesn’t “type” certain “r’s” – meaning she doesn’t pronounce them by touching her tongue against the ridge on the roof of her mouth – unlike Iniabasi.

“Adiaha really doesn’t have an Ibibio accent,” Soruvell said. “She’s American and only speaks English with a very subtle Ibibio influence.”

Why are these distinctions important beyond the authenticity of the language?

Soruvell said the differences in discourse help bring to life the nature of the relationship between these women:

“We want the public to feel the distance between them. Accents can give you the feeling of that distance. You can tell the different lives they had by the fact that they have completely different accents.”

The actors are also not required to use their accents in the same way throughout the play; Soruvell said that wouldn’t be true: “It’s an emotional piece. The accent with which we speak changes depending on who we are talking to and what emotional state we are in. It’s realistic.

While learning and using accents is a demanding process, Soruvell said, it shouldn’t get in the way of the actors’ main focus:

“Because I’m an actress,” she said, “I understand that the accent can’t be a burden, like a weight or something that distracts them. It’s very important to get the characteristics the best.” more salient, the prominent and important features of an accent. It’s like trying on a shoe. Find the features of the accent that are comfortable, because telling the story is the most important thing.

“Her Portmanteau” runs from October 11 to 30. For more information on tickets, Click here.


To learn more about Charles Paolino, visit his blog.


One Response

  1. Sharonerymn October 2, 2022

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