Native tongues

The grounds are defined by meandering turns of grass and dirt, a rainfall of lightbulbs, a shining blue curve that sometimes picks up projections and reflections of what might be ghosts or clouds, and a dotted line made of glass bottles of water. Amid these clear and reflective surfaces, natural elements and their simulations curbed and contained, stands Madeline Fielding Sayet, Acokayis. Named for Fidelia Fielding/Flying Bird/Jeets Bodernasha, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan language, and renamed Acokayis, “blackbird,” Sayet has been tasked from every saying of her name to contemplate this language and its loss. 

Where We Belong
Through 7/24: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 7/3, 7:30 PM, Tue 7/12, 7:30 PM, and Thu 7/21, 2 PM; touch tour and audio-described performance Sun 7/7, 2 PM (touch tour at 12:30 PM); Spanish subtitles Fri 7/15, 8 PM; ASL interpretation Sat 7/23, 2 PM; open captions Sun 7/24, 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $15-$45

Where We Belong, written and performed by Sayet, directed by Mei Ann Teo, with production design by Hao Bai, presents Sayet as Sayet, a descendant of Uncas, “known historically (to the colonizers) as ‘friend of the English,’” who enabled the survival of the Mohegans by allying with the invading enemies in an effort to make peace. 

Sayet walks a similar line in her story, in which she begins as a PhD student studying Shakespeare in England. She travels back in time to her adolescent discovery of escape and belonging in the world of the Bard, when “to be Native in CT, is basically to be told every day that you don’t exist, and decide whether or not today’s the day it’s worth fighting about.” (“Sooooo, you think you’re a white person now?” says her mother before sending her to confront her teachers with a history it pains all parties to remember.) And yet, to forget is the greatest pain: to learn your own language from a dictionary and never to speak it natively; to find your ancestors jumbled in a crude catalog of the British Museum’s collection of 12,000 human remains (not counting hair); to be represented as an artifact, a curiosity, a mocking stereotype in redface, or not at all; to stand on the border of your own land and wonder if the law will allow you to enter. All these are confronted with humor and sadness in Sayet’s story.

Sayet speaks throughout with urgency, rapt with a need to recite the words that otherwise may be lost and keep speaking a language that she says may make her a madwoman to us, just as Flying Bird continued to speak her language though there were no longer any living listeners. The lights stay on in the house throughout the performance, and though we listeners sit beneath the stage, she addresses the air above us—perhaps in defiance of the unnatural border of the stage and what it creates of the human before us making an art of her own story.“My career began—because I created a show—that asked: What would happen if Caliban could get his language back?” she says. “Would anyone have cared about those Mohegan words—if they didn’t come from Caliban?”

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