TULSA, Okla. – Billy Chalakee remembers growing up as a young Muscogee (Creek) boy listening to his grandparents and parents talk in their Native language.
Even the family’s church sermons were delivered in Creek. But Chalakee, 72, never really caught on to the language.
“I never did pick it up,” he said. “No one ever stopped to teach me. I knew some of the words when they asked me a question or talked to me, and I could understand what they said. But as for getting into conversation, I couldn’t pick it up.”
Chalakee is learning the language as a student in the Okmulgee Muscogee Language class, and he was recently given an opportunity to take his language learning to a whole new level while trying his hand at being an actor.
The Okmulgee and Tulsa Creek Indian Community language classes, under the guidance of Jackson Barnett and Thunder Road Theater, have created two plays that were performed entirely in the Muscogee language June 20.
Okmulgee Creek language students Lillian Thomas, Pat Factor, Alfred Harley and Chalakee star in “Bocv, Hoktvlkogee,” which is a comedy set in a Creek household when Grandma is away and Grandpa is in charge of making dinner for a visiting preacher.
“I enjoy being in this class,” Chalakee said. “They said you play this part and I said, ‘ok, I’ll try.’ I think I’m ready. I enjoy the classes too”
The other play is performed by the Tulsa Creek Indian Community language class.
“Nettv Momen Nere” is based on a traditional story written down by Jackson Barnett. This story explains how the animals met together to decide which should be longer, day or night. Based on Barnett’s story, students in the Tulsa Creek Indian Community language class tried to imagine what the animals in this story might have said and done as they held their fateful meeting. Actors in the play are Jane Bardis, Margo Smith, Tallulah Smith and Adam Recvlohe.
Creek citizen Okcate Smith co-directed the plays with Thunder Road Theater founder Julie Little Thunder.
“This is our first time doing a full-out Indian language play,” Smith said. “We’ve used phrases in other plays and songs, but nothing that’s been totally in Creek or in another Native language.”
Smith said the plays are 10-15 minute plays, but the rehearsals and the scripts help the students learn more of the language.
“I think it’s really important,” Smith said. “It’s a really good way to learn the language. I’m new to the language and I’ve already learned so much.”
Smith said plays in other Indian languages would be an effective tool for tribes to use when teaching the language.
“It would be a great thing for other tribes to do,” Smith said. “We’d love to facilitate that and help it get under way.”
The Creek plays are being used as a model for future Indian language plays.
“We’ve learned a lot in doing this with people who are new to acting and are new to the language,” Smith said. “We’ve learned so much from this experience. We want to have a nice model to help other tribes get these community projects together and do language plays.”
The project was supported in part by a grant from the Oklahoma Arts Council.
“It’s been really fulfilling to me because I love theater,” Smith said. “I don’t even want to leave at the end (of rehearsal.) It revives me every time I go to rehearsal.”
Smith said she’s excited to share her passion for acting with people.
“Sharing that with people who may not understand and letting them in on this neat world of imagination, creativity and the journeys we go on is fulfilling.”
Chalakee said he hoped he would do well in the play, and was looking forward to it.
“I’m excited,” Chalakee said. “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this.”
Smith said Thunder Road Theater invites anyone of any age and any experience to check out the theater.
Visit the Thunder Road Theater at web.me.com/thunderroadtheater.