Most of us who see the play that opens the season at the George Street Playhouse—“Her Portmanteau” by Mfoniso Udofia—will be hearing the Ibibio language of Nigeria for the first time.
The George Street company has two specialists on board to make sure we hear it right.
“Her Portmanteau,” directed by Laiona Michelle, will run October 11 through 30 at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. It is one of a projected nine-play cycle in which Udofia presents the experiences of Abasiama Ufot, a Nigeria-born woman who has immigrated to the United States.
Abasiama has two daughters—one, Iniabasi Ekpeyong, from a failed marriage in Nigeria, and another, Adiaha Ufot, from an enduring 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 be living with Abasiama in Massachusetts.
The encounter among these women, which takes place mostly in Adiaha’s small apartment in New York, is fraught with tensions, some endemic to the immigrant experience and some arising from situations that could affect families anywhere.
In the first line in the play, Iniabasi, just off the plane at JFK International Airport, is speaking by phone to her son’s caretaker in Nigeria: “Uwem, mmeyem ita? ik? ye Kufre” — “Uwem, I want to talk to Kufre.”
In an approach not unique to this play, this line and the other occasional Ibibio dialogue is not translated for the audience who are to understand the circumstances if not the literal statements from the context of the scene.
None of the actors appearing in “Her Portmanteau” speaks Ibibio, which is one of hundreds of languages and dialects spoken in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.
The cast of "Her Portmanteau" - (L-R) Jennean Farmer, Shannon Harris, and Mattilyn Rochester Kravitz
The task of coaching the players in speaking the language correctly has fallen to Ebbe Bassey, a Bronx-born actress, writer, and producer who was raised in Nigeria.
Bassey said she got involved in this project when she attended a reading of an Udofia play and realized that she and the playwright had roots in the same region of Nigeria. Since then, she has worked with any theater company mounting an Udofia play.
“My job,” Bassey said, “is to get the actors to pronounce the language correctly so that someone in the audience who would understand the lines would not say, ‘That is not a native speaker.’”
That’s no small undertaking, she said, because Ibibio, like every language, has its unique characteristics, some of which are unknown in English.
“A particular challenge that the actors are facing is tone,” Bassey said. “One word can mean two or three different things. I want to get them as close as possible to the correct inflection so that they’re not saying something that is the opposite of what they want to say.”
Bassey said she uses music to acclimate the actors to the rhythmic nature of Ibibio, also a feature foreign to English.
Also, she said, “There are certain sounds in Ibibio that do not exist in English, and that involves mouth formation and tongue placement.” Ibibio, for example, employs combinations of consonants that do not occur in English, and, she said, “Americans are used to exploding the letter ‘t.’ In Ibibio, we don’t; the ‘t’ stops at the roof of the mouth.”
This issue of language is nuanced in “Her Portmanteau” in part because one character, Iniabasi, has spent her whole life until now in Nigeria; another, Abasiama, has spent substantial periods in both Nigeria and the United States; and the third, Adiaha, has always lived in the States. These differences affect how they speak, and particularly the accent in their English.
Enter Maggie Surovell, an actor, writer, director, and, since 2005, dialect coach who is helping the actors with their accents. Surovell said she works with the actors on three elements of Ibibio that would affect the accent: the “playful” musicality, the muscularity (“Every accent has a set of muscles that you use when you speak”), and the pronunciations of the words.
“I’m working 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, having just arrived from Nigeria, has the heaviest accent. Abasiama, having spent decades in the United States, has a less pronounced accent. For example, she does not “tap” certain “r’s”—meaning she does not pronounce them by touching her tongue to the ridge on the roof of her mouth—whereas Iniabasi does.
“Adiaha really doesn’t have an Ibibio accent,” Soruvell said. “She is an American and speaks English only with a very subtle Ibibio influence.”
Why are these distinctions important beyond making the language sound authentic?
Soruvell said the differences in speech help bring to life the nature of the relationship among these women:
“We want the audience to feel the distance between them. The accents can give you the feeling of that distance. We feel the different lives they have had by the fact that they have completely different accents.”
Nor are the actors bound to use their accents in the same way throughout the play; Soruvell said that wouldn’t be true to life: “This is an emotional play. The accent we speak with shifts depending on whom we’re talking to and the emotional state we’re in. That’s realistic.”
Although learning and using accents is a demanding process, Soruvell said, it should not get in the way of the actors’ principal goal:
“Because I’m an actor,” she said, “I understand that accent can’t be burdensome, like a weight or something that is distracting for them. It’s most important to get the most salient features, the prominent, 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 October 11 through 30. For ticket information, click here.