Telling a tale

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, Februaru 25, 2009

The Jade Empress, wearing a sea-green headdress and holding an oversized fan, is about to take her place on stage. She has 22 lines, which she doesn’t think she’ll forget.

It’s the Tuesday dress-rehearsal of Ohlone Elementary School’s production of “The Monkey King.” The young actor is playing the same role her brother played a few years ago, but this year the show is a little different.

Parents still buzz around applying make-up, and Ohlone students work the light-system control board as they have in years’ past. But this year, the production is marking the first year of Ohlone’s once-controversial Mandarin Immersion program.

Ohlone has performed “The Monkey King” twice before, but Principal Susan Charles thought that mounting the Chinese fable this year would be a good way to welcome the new language-immersion program. Students will sing in Mandarin as part of the play’s opening number, amidst a vibrant cast garbed in traditional Chinese dress, intricate masks and headdresses. Fans and lanterns will decorate the colorful set.

On Tuesday, Otak Jump, an Ohlone teacher and the play’s director, stood among dozens of kneeling youngsters. In his pep talk, Jump encouraged his actors to play with the story.

“Even more than you play with it, let your character play with you, every moment you’re on stage,” he said.

“If you’re a monkey, be a monkey; if you’re a fairy, be a fairy; if you’re a spider, be a spider,” he said, transforming his body into each character he described. “A character never forgets its lines.”

The Ohlone students grinned and nodded their heads.

Jump adapted a classical Chinese “Journey to the West” tale and is directing 110 young actors, who form two casts.

The story was originally written about 400 years ago during the Ming dynasty, and with the addition of the pivotal role of Monkey, the allegory took on a supernatural element. The Monkey King is to East Asia what Mickey Mouse and Superman are to the West.

“Monkey King beats it by half in Asia. Everyone knows Monkey King,” Jump said. “He is a superhero; he can fly on a cloud. Monkey is impervious to being injured.”

Jump’s re-write of “The Monkey King” includes allegorical episodes telling of when Monkey is born, when he becomes the guardian of the immortal peaches, when he goes up to heaven and when he steals the clothes of seven spider spirits.

“When we did ‘The Monkey King’ before we never sang in Mandarin, but now we have a Mandarin class,” Charles said.

The immersion program has 40 kindergarten and first-graders, one-third of whom come from Mandarin-speaking families. Eighty percent of the school week, the children are taught in Mandarin and the other 20 percent in English.

“We’re taking the Immersion program and blending it in the Ohlone developmental model of teaching. It’s quite a stretch, but it’s a stretch I think we can do it,” said Charles, who added that the students are doing well.

“The Monkey King” will be performed on Thursday (school-only performance at 1 p.m.), Friday (school performance at 1 p.m. and public performance at 7 p.m.) and Saturday (public performances at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m) at Ohlone Elementary School’s multipurpose room, 950 Amarillo Ave., Palo Alto.

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