Where’s Atsumori

“It was only last night that we sang and danced to bid farewell to this life.” (From This Lingering Life)

Cover of Tale of the Heike, trans. Royall Tyler

Cover of Tale of the Heike, trans. Royall Tyler

It is common practice for a Noh play to extract one character or focus on one scene from Japanese history or literature, and one of the most common sources, especially for warrior plays, is The Tale of the Heike, an early 14th-century account of events that had occurred during the late 12th century.

Although the origins of The Tale of the Heike cannot be precisely ascertained, the work is widely believed to be an augmented compilation of stories that had been sung for generations by blind musicians, to the accompaniment of a lute-like instrument called a biwa.  The tradition of performing parts of the Heike narrative on biwa has continued to the present day; I include links to some recordings near the end of this post.

Blind Biwa Player

Blind Biwa Player

The Tale of the Heike commemorates the events of the Genpei Wars, in which two rival clans, the Taira (or Heike) and the Minamoto (or Genji) battled for dominance over Japan.  These wars occurred at the end of a mostly peaceful and culturally noteworthy span of centuries known as the Heian Period, which was characterized by a flowering of the arts offering few parallels in the history of civilization.  The Genpei Wars resulted in the accession to power of the first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

The Story of Atsumori

The importance of the arts and of cultural refinement, even in the warrior class, is relevant to one of the most famous Noh plays, Atsumori, which is also one of the foundation stories in This Lingering Life.  The story of Atsumori, as told in The Tale of the Heike and in the Noh play Atsumori, takes place in the aftermath of the Battle of Ichinotani, in which the Heike were routed by the Genji and forced to flee by ship to Yashima.

Atsumori, from Wikipedia


One young warrior, the teenage lord Atsumori, was left behind in the rush to the ships.  In some versions of the story, he had gone back to the Heike camp to recover his flute, a precious instrument given to his grandfather by an ex-emperor and passed down to him by his father.  Atsumori was wading into the bay on his horse, trying to reach the ships, when a Genji warrior named Kumagai appeared on the shore, beckoned with his battle fan, and challenged Atsumori, on his honor, to turn back and engage in single combat.  Atsumori, on his honor, could not refuse the challenge and turned back.

The younger, less experienced warrior had no chance against the seasoned Kumagai, who quickly unhorsed him and struck him to the ground.  Kumagai could tell, from Atsumori’s armor, that he was a great lord, but not until he removed Atsumori’s helmet did Kumagai realize that he had felled a teenage boy, of the same age as his own son.  In his compassion for the boy, Kumagai was reluctant to take his life, although the valiant Atsumori would not plead for mercy.  In the meantime, more Genji warriors were approaching the pair from behind, and Kumagai decided it would be best for him to behead Atsumori himself, because he, unlike his more boorish companions, would pray for the boy’s soul.

Atsumori with his flute, from Wikipedia

Atsumori with his flute, from Wikipedia

It was not until after he had killed Atsumori and begun to remove his armor that Kumagai found Atsumori’s flute.  Sadly he realized that it must have been this same flute that he had heard from a distance the evening before, and sadly he reflected on how cultivated this young man and the Heike in general were, in contrast with the crudeness of members of his own clan.

In most Noh plays, the person who encounters a spirit has had no prior relationship with him or her, but in Atsumori the waki is Kumagai, and as Atsumori’s unwilling killer, he too is burdened by memory.  Long ago, he relinquished his arms to become the monk Renshō, and it is in this guise that he encounters his former victim.  In the course of the play, they reveal themselves to one another.   At the last, their sympathy is reciprocal and cleansing.  The chorus chants near the end of the play:

Now karma brings us face to face again.
“You are my foe!” Atsumori shouts,
Lifting his sword to strike; but Kumagai
with kindness has repaid old enmity,
calling the Name to give the spirit peace.
They at last shall be reborn together
upon one lotus throne in paradise.
Rensho, you were no enemy of mine.

(From Atsumori, trans. Royall Tyler, in Japanese Nō Dramas)

The Legacy of Atsumori

Sadanobu Ichikawa Ebizo V as Kumagai

Sadanobu Ichikawa Ebizo V as Kumagai

The legacy of Atsumori did not end with the Noh play.  The event was also memorialized a few centuries later in kabuki and bunraku, in the play Chronicles of the Battle of Ichinotani and, most famously, in the classic Kumagai’s Battle Camp.  These works place emphasis on the Genji warrior Kumagai and question whether he really killed Atsumori or, by virtue of an obligation to Atsumori’s mother, substituted his own son.  And they give prominence to multiple female characters, notably Atsumori’s mother, who boldly enters the camp of her enemy and demands Kumagai’s life in recompense for her beloved son’s death.

Not all retellings of the Atsumori story are literary, and here is an opportunity to dazzle your friends, should you happen to accompany them to the Asian Art Museum or some other venue that hosts exhibitions of Japanese art.  Among the most popular subjects for large-scale Japanese paintings, such as hand scrolls and folding screens, has been the pair of battles that took place just a few days apart at Ichitonotani and Yashima.  One screen of a pair usually represents Ichinotani, the other Yashima, and invariably, somewhere in the image, you will find Atsumori on horseback in the water, looking back at Kumagai, who rides toward him across the beach with battle fan outstretched:

Detail of a screen, from the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail of a screen, from the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have often wondered whether the children’s book series Where’s Waldo was inspired by the crowdedness of painted depictions of Ichinotani and Yashima.

Screen depicting the battles of Ichinotani and Yashima, from the website of the Asia Society

Screen depicting the battles of Ichinotani and Yashima, from the website of the Asia Society

The pathos of the scene in which Kumagai removes Atsumori’s helmet and is confronted by a visage that reminds him of his own son also resonates in a well-known work of twentieth-century popular culture.  Can you think of a scene in which one saber-wielding character overpowers another and, as his adversary dies, removes his (strikingly Japanese-looking) helmet to reveal a suddenly pitiable, even lovable face?  How about the scene in Star Wars in which Luke Skywalker has just dealt Darth Vader a mortal wound and looks, for the first time, upon his father’s face?

Kabuto (samurai helmet)

Kabuto (samurai helmet)

The Young Warrior in This Lingering Life

Hannah Lennett and Lluis Valls in rehearsal

Hannah Lennett and Lluis Valls in rehearsal

The young warrior Atsumori is a major character in This Lingering Life, but just as the kabuki and bunraku versions of the story vary from their source materials, so Chiori Miyagawa has depicted Atsumori and the characters around him in unique ways.  While in The Tale of the Heike and the Noh play, Atsumori is a delicate, cultivated young man who seems not to belong on the battlefield at all, Miyagawa the playwright and Hannah Lennett, who plays the role of the young warrior, portray him as a hot-headed teenager quick to draw his sword, to the extent that he goes into battle already bearing the stain of matricide.  And unlike the imperious figure of Atsumori’s mother in the kabuki play, the mother in This Lingering Life is a conventional woman who drives her son to murder by complacently suggesting that, given his warrior status, he must be prepared to die in battle.

Lluis Valls and Hannah Lennett as Kumagai and Atsumori

Lluis Valls and Hannah Lennett as Kumagai and Atsumori

The character of Kumagai in This Lingering Life partakes of the brusque nobility evident in most literary and dramatic portrayals of his story.  In This Lingering Life, a given character can continue his spiritual mission from incarnation to incarnation, and so Kumagai—played by Lluis Valls—returns again and again to confront his former adversary, in order finally to assuage the young warrior’s bitterness and give him rest.

For More Information

Readers interested in learning more about Atsumori would do well to consult the following excellent sources:

Posted in This Lingering Life | Leave a comment

From Life to Life

Semimaru, by Matsuno Sofu

Semimaru, by Matsuno Sofu

In many a Noh play, a traveler—often but not always a priest—encounters a mysterious person who, in the course of the play, is revealed to be the manifestation of a restless spirit.  This spirit, commonly that of a prominent literary or historical character, haunts the locale because, although dead, he or she remains bound to the world by obsession with one specific memory.  The memory is usually  a painful one.  A warrior might remember betrayal by a comrade in arms; a woman might have wistful recollections of lost love or beauty; a man or a woman might wallow in rage or despair at having been spurned by a lover or rejected by a parent or child.  The cure for such attachment is an act of exorcism, often involving recitation by the traveler of parts of the Lotus Sutra, but also crucially requiring an act of witness:  while in the first half of the play, the traveler interacts only with the manifestation (mae-shite), in the second half the traveler and audience encounter the suffering spirit (nochi-shite) in person and listen to his or her story.  In essence, we must let ourselves be enthralled for an hour by someone’s story in order for that person not to be in thrall to it for all time. 

In This Lingering Life, Chiori Miyagawa gestures toward this paradigm but complicates it by having characters from several Noh plays interact, and by deploying concepts from Tibetan Buddhist doctrines pertaining to the afterlife and reincarnation.  Some of the characters you will meet in the play occupy a contiguous dimension; others are—or it is suggested that they are—successive human embodiments of the same troubled soul.

The Bardo

At several points in the play, you will hear the narrator (the Woman with Tragic Hair) wonder whether she is in the Bardo.  Buddhist doctrines pertaining to the Bardo can seem bewilderingly complex, but the greatly simplified view presented here is adequate for understanding references to the concept in This Lingering Life.

Wheel of Life representing the six realms, Bhutan (from Wikipedia)

Wheel of Life representing the six realms, Bhutan (from Wikipedia)

Bardo is defined by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and other scriptural sources as a transitional state between death and rebirth into a new body.  (In This Lingering Life, the Bardo is rendered as a physical location, but most practitioners would identify it as a psychological state.)  For a period of 49 days, the soul in transit experiences visions and implicitly chooses rebirth into one of six possible realms:

  • Hell.  This realm is characterized by tortures correlating with the person’s sins or preoccupations in his or her most recent life.  Both the topography of hell and the implementation of contrapasso (a picturesque word for punishment bearing a metaphorical relation to the crime) will seem improbably familiar to devotees of Dante’s Inferno.  Painted “hell screens,” featuring vivid portrayals of hell and its torments, were used in Japanese religious ritual from the 9th century onward.
  • Hungry Ghosts.  This realm consists of beings plagued by insatiable desire.  They are most often depicted as literally hungry, hovering avidly if ineffectually over human diners.  However, on a metaphorical level, they might be hungry for other satisfactions, such as vengeance or the love or respect they feel was denied to them in life.  Several characters in This Lingering Life are either hungry ghosts or on a steady path toward this unenviable state.
  • Animals.   In Buddhist cosmology, rebirth as an animal is disadvantageous insofar as one cannot achieve enlightenment from within this state.  (A number of us have companion animals who would surely disagree on this point.)
  • Asura.  This realm consists of demigods, often characterized as obsessed with power and resentful of the Deva, or heavenly beings.  A comparison with the Titans of Greek mythology is useful for imagining the asura.
  • Human.  This realm consists, obviously, of human beings.  Rebirth as a human being, albeit troublous, is also advantageous insofar as only a human being can achieve enlightenment and escape the cycle of death and rebirth, proceeding directly to the beatific state of  Nirvana.
  • Deva.  This realm consists of heavenly beings and might seem to be the most desirable but is not considered to be, because its denizens are too complacent in their lot to achieve enlightenment.
Detail from a hell scroll, Nara National Museum (from Wikipedia Commons)

Detail from a hell scroll, Nara National Museum (from Wikipedia Commons)

The Way to Freedom

If freedom from the cycle of rebirth is the ultimate object, then ironically the means of attaining liberation is to cease to make it an object.  The practitioner must accede to a state beyond desire, a state in which apparent dichotomies, like that between good and evil or between pleasure and pain, are revealed as entirely illusory.  For most of us, the achievement of such a state, at least on a sustained basis, is terribly unlikely, but a valuable step, the Woman with Tragic Hair intuitively realizes and recommends to others, is to divest oneself of the all-consuming anger that is the surest way to be reborn into the Hungry Ghost realm.

And what of the Woman with Tragic Hair herself?  She tells us that she has wandered for 400 years, ever since she was rejected by her father ostensibly because her hair grows upward.  Not yet having achieved liberation herself, she finds herself traveling from life to life, helping others on their own way.  In this practice, she has characteristics in common with a bodhisattva as defined in Mahayana Buddhism, except that a bodhisattva is a person who could proceed directly to nirvana but chooses to be reborn out of compassion for others.

Yamauba, by Totoya Hokkei

Yamauba, by Totoya Hokkei

In the classic Zen and Japanese Culture, Daisetz T. Suzuki retells the story of the Noh play Yamauba (Old Woman of the Mountains), in which a dancer travels to a mountainous area and is surprised when darkness falls far earlier than expected.  Uncannily, an old woman suddenly appears to the dancer and her companion and offers them refuge, on condition that the dancer perform a dance in praise of the legendary Yamauba.  It is eventually revealed (as anyone familiar with the structure of a Noh play will already have guessed) that the old woman is Yamauba herself, a being who moves eternally from mountain to mountain, sometimes embodied and sometimes invisible, rendering assistance to villagers.

Suzuki identifies her with the love present deep within us and in nature, but his view is only one possible formulation.  Historically, Yamauba has also been seen as a witch, a woman who by virtue of operating on the margins of society, is feared and suspected of sinister practices.   As I read the story yesterday, I was reminded of the Woman with Tragic Hair, for whom service to others is—auspiciously in terms of her prospects for enlightenment—not a goal undertaken for instrumental purposes but seemingly inherent in her nature.   She is among the most moving characters I have encountered lately in literature or life, and it cheers me to think that many of you are destined to make her acquaintance.

Posted in This Lingering Life | Leave a comment

Looking Forward to Lingering

Detail from Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts, 13th Century (Wikipedia Commons)

Detail from Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts, 13th Century (Wikipedia Commons)

It is with great enthusiasm that I anticipate the world-premiere production of Chiori Miyagawa’s This Lingering Life, playing at the Z Space on June 5-14, 2014.  And it is also with pleasure that I begin this series of blog posts, to share information about what I think will be one of the most memorable shows in recent Theatre of Yugen history.

Why this show, now?  At a moment when it seems that the addiction most pervasive in our society is rancor, This Lingering Life is at once a reminder not to fall in love with our own anger and an exhortation to help others overcome the resentments that haunt them.  Whether your tastes run to pathos, humor, experimental music, mystical experience, or the supernatural, you will want to join us.

Not your guru's Bardo (clip art)

Not your guru’s Bardo (clip art)

Yugen Takes a Western Turn

Regular audience members are accustomed to seeing, at the NOHspace, contemporary plays in which a story culled from European or American literature or history is enacted in a style derived from classical Japanese Noh, Kyogen, or a combination of these traditional dramatic forms.  This Lingering Life will offer an experience of the opposite kind:  in this new play by New York-based playwright Chiori Miyagawa, nine stories drawn from the classical Japanese Noh theater are intertwined, set in the twenty-first century, and presented in a distinctly Western style.

Several of the posts in this series will introduce the Noh plays on which this new play is based, so that if you choose, you can enjoy recognizing them in their modern guises.  We also hope that for some audience members, the stories will inspire an interest in learning more about Noh.

That the company is taking a new turn with This Lingering Life is underscored by the consistency with which both playwright Chiori Miyagawa and dramaturg Eugenie Chan have asserted their distance from the Noh form and from Japanese culture more generally.  In a recent interview, Miyagawa repeatedly resisted the interviewer’s emphasis on her Japanese origins, for example:

Q: What do you miss about working in your homeland?

A: I have never done theater in my homeland, if you mean homeland as being the country where I was born…In my chosen homeland, I’ve been fortunate to be able to keep doing theater for many years.
(from http://www.tcgcircle.org/2012/03/artist-immigrant-chiori-miyagawa/)

And when Chan first joined us at artistic retreats and rehearsals for the production, she took care to remind those of us who are enthralled by Noh that her first responsibility as dramaturg was to consider the production from the standpoint of someone who is neither versed in Noh nor deeply motivated to learn about it.

Nine Actors in Twenty-Eight Roles

Cast of thousand? (from Sea of Buddha, Hiroshi Sugimoto 1995)

Cast of thousand? (from Sea of Buddha, Hiroshi Sugimoto 1995)

This Lingering Life features a large cast, consisting of nearly the whole Yugen ensemble, some familiar faces from the past, and several participants in the Yugen apprenticeship program.  A major role in the play is that of the Woman with Tragic Hair, who wanders the earth, trying to help others to achieve enlightenment so that ultimately she, too, can find her way to Nirvana.  This role will be undertaken by Artistic Director Jubilith Moore, who has not assumed a major role in a mainstage production, except on tour, since Erik Ehn’s Cordelia three years ago.  (Moore is also the Director of This Lingering Life.)  Senior ensemble members Lluis Valls and Sheila Berotti will each assume multiple roles.  Junior ensemble member Sheila Devitt will have her first role in a mainstage contemporary production by Theatre of Yugen, having previously appeared in traditional Kyogen as part of the company’s annual spring Sorya! program.

Rehearsal at NOHspace

Rehearsal at NOHspace

Back with us for this special event will be two actors who charmed audiences in previous productions but who have since been more active elsewhere in the San Francisco theater world.  Former ensemble member Ryan Marchand had his debut at the NOHspace in the Theatre of Yugen production of Candide or Optimism; he is currently Artistic Director of Handful Players, where he introduces San Francisco schoolchildren to the pleasures and challenges of theater making.  Associate ensemble member Norman Muñoz appeared in several past Theatre of Yugen productions, including Don Q, Candide or Optimism, Volpone or the Fox, and Dogsbody;  since appearing on our stage, he has been active with other local theaters, notably and recently in the Fall 2013 world premiere of Basil Kreimendahl’s Sidewinders at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater.

And representing the Yugen apprenticeship program are:

  • Nick Ishimaru, whom many readers will remember as the dorking hen and Yongy Bonghy Bo in the 2012 production of A Minor Cycle
  • Alexander Lydon, a relatively recent transplant to the Bay Area theater scene, whose Bay Area  credits so far include the role of Monkey King in Crowded Fire Theatre’s World Premiere of 410[GONE] by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and the role of Magistrate Tiger in Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s World Premiere production of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, with book, music, and lyrics by Min Kahng
  • Hannah Lennett, who will be making her mainstage debut but is active elsewhere as a Teaching Artist, bringing theater to Bay Area private and public school children through her involvement with the Storybuilders program of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Late-breaking news:  Alex tells me that he has just been promoted to the status of junior ensemble member.  Congratulations, Alex, and congratulations, Theatre of Yugen, for engaging a young man of Alex’s breadth and promise!

Hungry Ghosts, You Say?

In later posts, I will introduce the composer, the designers, and other important contributors to the production, but next, how about some background information concerning the Bardo, hungry ghosts, and the Buddhist afterlife?

Posted in This Lingering Life | Leave a comment

Sparks in the Tinderbox

William Faulkner’s Light in August was published in the early 1930s, which was also the span of years during which the number of lynchings of African-Americans in the United States reached its peak (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingyear.html).   The central character, Joe Christmas, is haunted throughout his life by the assumption, never confirmed, that his father was a “Negro.”  Although he looks white and can pass for white, he considers himself a biological and hence a psychological hybrid, believing the common imputation of specific character traits to different races:

“But his blood would not be quiet, let him save it.  It would not be either one or the other…Because the black blood drove him first to the negro cabin.  And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it… ” (Light in August, p. 448)

Christmas leads an unsettled, violent life, ultimately killing his white lover (who, at that moment, is pointing a gun at him).  Several days later, he is caught, killed, and castrated by a national guardsman who exclaims hotly, “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell” (Light in August, p. 464).

The Southern Rape Complex and Fear of Black Males

The “Southern Rape Complex “ is a term coined by W. J. Cash in 1941 to describe a cultural trope in which the rape of a Southern white woman by a black man symbolizes the desecration and destruction of the South, but the fear of black male lust targeted at white women predates that formulation and lingered for many decades afterward, to the extent that its traces remain apparent in some quarters.   Nor has the stereotype suggesting that darker-skinned men have a special predilection for white women been confined to the American South, or even to the United States:  in E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India, an Indian Muslim doctor is on the point of being convicted for sexual assault on a white Englishwoman when she suddenly retracts her accusation.

In Toni Morrison’s novel  Beloved, which is set during Reconstruction but includes many flashbacks to slave times, the white slave owner Garner boasts that his slaves, who are allowed to carry guns and to whom he turns for advice, are not boys but men and taunts his cohort.  (Morrison’s text spells out the word represented in this post as “n______.”)

“Now at Sweet Home, my n_____s  is men every one of em.  Bought em thataway, raised em thataway.  Men every one.”

“Beg to differ, Garner.  Ain’t no n_______ men.”

“Not if you scared, they ain’t.”  Garner’s smile was wide. “But if you a man yourself, you’ll want your n______s to be men too.”

“I wouldn’t have no n_______ men round my wife.”

It was the reaction Garner loved and waited for.  “Neither would I,” he said.  “Neither would I,” and there was always a pause before the neighbor, or stranger, or peddler, or brother-in-law or whoever it was got the meaning.  Then a fierce argument, sometimes a fight, and Garner came home bruised and pleased…” (Beloved, p. 11)

In the short story “Dry September,” published in Scribner’s in 1931, Faulkner vividly portrays the mentality of a lynch mob forming to avenge a presumed insult perpetrated on a white woman by a black man.  The story is not only short but highly accessible; reading it in full might shed light on one aspect of the Emmett Till story not developed in Emmett Till, a riverhttp://www.nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/4/faulkner/september.htm  (New Bulgarian University)

And in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi.  Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” she uses the imagined point of view of Carolyn Bryant to explore the dissonance between an ennobling fantasy in which “the ‘maid mild’/Of the ballad” is “Pursued/By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince” and the distasteful realities Bryant must confront in her memory and her marriage:  http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-bronzeville-mother-loiters-in-mississippi-mean/

William Faulkner on Emmett Till

William Faulkner was still alive at the time of Emmett Till’s murder and made a statement, which he reiterated during an interview he gave to The Paris Review in 1956.  The full interview, which touches on many aspects of the writer’s craft, is available at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4954/the-art-of-fiction-no-12-william-faulkner.

INTERVIEWER:  You gave a statement to the papers at the time of the Emmett Till killing.  Have you anything to add to it?

FAULKNER:  No, only to repeat what I said before: that if we Americans are to survive it will have to be because we choose and elect and defend to be first of all Americans; to present to the world one homogeneous and unbroken front, whether of white Americans or black ones or purple or blue or green.  Maybe the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults on an afflicted Negro child is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive.  Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.

Faulkner’s words continue to resonate more than fifty years after he uttered them.

Posted in Emmett Till | Leave a comment

On the Shoulders of Anonymous

As a writer, I am inevitably interested in approaches to storytelling.  When I heard that Kevin Simmonds and Judy Halebsky were planning a Noh-inflected telling of the story of Emmett Till, I was intrigued, because it certainly was not obvious how they would go about their task.

One challenge of adapting a story to Noh is that, in contrast with Western dramatic forms, a Noh play usually features only two actors, a main character (shite), who is the subject of the play, and a secondary character (waki), who is often simply an interlocutor or witness but can also, in some circumstances, have a role in the narrative.  The story of Emmett Till involved an array of characters, any of whom one might choose to feature in a play:  the teenage Emmett Till himself, the young woman Carolyn Bryant, her husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam, also potentially the cousins Emmett was visiting, his mother who was home in Chicago at the time but who became famous after the murder, and various representatives of law enforcement, attorneys, and jurors who participated in the murder trial.   Which one or two of these characters would Simmonds and Halebsky choose to portray?

Different Categories, Different Options

There are five categories of Noh plays, each focused on a different type of protagonist.  One evening, on a whim, I made notes for one hypothetical play in each category.  Together they could tell much of the story of Emmett Till:

  • God play—Category 1.  A play in this category establishes an elevated mood, and in the most revered God play, Okina, a hieratic dance is performed by one character in a white mask (Okina) and one in a black mask (Sambaso).  A God play reflecting on the sobering events of August 1955 might describe the setting, natural and cultural.  Dancers could enact the black and white racial encounter, suggesting that Emmett Till’s story, tragic as it was, budged the nation forward on a journey that is still in progress as we remember, retell, and reflect upon the events and their underlying social dynamics.
  • Warrior play—Category 2.  A play in this category concerns a man, usually a warrior, but in Atsumori, one of the best-loved plays in its category, the warrior is revealed to be practically a child.  I can imagine a Category 2 play focused on Emmett Till, a boy in a war zone like Atsumori, with maybe a slingshot or harmonica in his pocket.  (Atsumori carries a flute.)  Emmett certainly did not travel south to be a warrior—maybe he was just beginning to feel like a man at age 14—but through his mother’s efforts, he soon became a symbol of struggle, his name a rallying call.  I hope such a play would remind its audience that Emmett Till was also, essentially, a normal teenage boy who met an unspeakable end far from home.
  • Woman play—Category 3.  A play in this category concerns a woman preoccupied with sorrowful memories.  The obvious choice would be Mamie Till, who let her son travel without her to visit relatives in Mississippi, with such horrible consequences.
  • Miscellaneous play—Category 4.  A play in this category often concerns a disturbed woman.  In this instance the woman could be Carolyn Bryant, whose interpretation of her meeting with Emmett Till, or arguably her fear as to how others in her family and community might react, precipitated the tragedy.
  • Demon play—category 5.   A play in this category concerns a demon.  The men who, in their fury, tortured and murdered Emmett Till could be rendered as demonic without a playwright’s needing to exaggerate the details of their actions.

It would, I think, be a rich experience to participate in a workshop in which five writers each developed one of these ideas, or similar ones.  Then the whole series of plays could be presented as a cycle. (The performance of a cycle of five plays, one in each category, is traditional in Noh.   Theatre of Yugen itself performed a cycle of Noh-influenced plays by Erik Ehn in July 2007.)

The Path of Adaptation

Speculation aside, what Kevin Simmonds and Judy Halebsky actually did, after a series of initial experiments and a work-in-progress presentation at the NOHspace, was to adapt an existing Noh play, Fujito.  The high-level synopses given here hint at the similarities between Fujito and Emmett Till, a river.


Fujito is a category 4 play of unknown authorship, probably written in the fifteenth century.   A lord, by the name of Moritsuna, arrives at Fujito.  He is the waki.  (By convention in a Noh play, the waki enters before the shite and introduces himself to the audience.)  Moritsuna has recently been awarded a fiefdom in recompense for leading an army to victory in battle.  He holds court and invites petitioners to approach him.

One of the petitioners is a woman, who claims that Moritsuna killed her son.  This actor is the shite, appearing in this act as a disturbed woman.  At first Moritsuna denies the deed, but soon he begins to recount the details of the murder.  The woman’s son had provided valuable information to Moritsuna’s army:  he had shown them where they might cross the sea.  Moritsuna had then killed the young man to prevent him from divulging information to the enemy.  Faced with the mother’s grief, Moritsuna promises to pray for her son.  He commands a memorial service and a (brief) moratorium on the taking of lives.

In the second act, the young man’s ghost appears and expresses resentment against Moritsuna.   The role is played by the same shite actor who was the grieving mother in the first act.  Since his death, the young man has lurked beneath the waves as a dragon seeking vengeance, but now Moritsuna’s prayers have released him so he can enter the afterlife.

Emmett Till, a river

In Emmett Till, a river Carolyn Bryant, the storekeeper’s wife, arrives alongside the Tallahatchie River fifty years after the murder.  Like Moritsuna in Fujito, she is the waki.  She boards a riverboat and soon meets a woman who claims that Bryant killed her son.  This actor is the shite, appearing in this act as Mamie Till.   At first Bryant resists being implicated, but soon she begins to recount details of the murder and her involvement.

In the second act, Emmett’s ghost appears and holds Bryant accountable by virtue of the fact that she could have saved his life but instead precipitated his death.  The role of Emmett is played by the same shite actor who was Mamie Till in the first act.  For fifty years, his soul has been entangled, but now the prayers of those who remember his story have released him.  He rises into the sky.

By Way of Preparation

It is common for members of a Noh audience to bring libretti to performances and follow along.  I do not think Theatre of Yugen will be making a libretto available for Emmett Till,  a river, but those interested in how Simmonds and Halebsky adapted their source to tell a modern story might want to look in advance at the following texts:

  • William Ritchie Wilson’s translation of Fujito, published in Monumenta Nipponica 29:4 p.439-449, 1974.   This is the text of which Emmett Till, a river is an adaptation.  It is available on JSTOR.  (Note:  The script for Emmett Till, a river explicitly cites the Wilson translation as its source.)
  • A summary of Fujito, available at http://www.noh-kyogen.com/story/english/Fujito.pdf
Posted in Emmett Till | Leave a comment

Another Telling of Emmett Till’s Story

Emmett Till, a river, a Noh play by Kevin Simmonds and Judy Halebsky, is the contribution of Theatre of Yugen to the rich literary and dramatic legacy of Emmett Till’s story.  The magnitude of that legacy is suggested by the online bibliography of Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination (see  http://faculty.samford.edu/~cpmetres/bibliography.html), which  lists more than 130 poems, plays, novels, and other literary and dramatic renderings and adaptations.  The online list excludes most works published or produced after 2006, notably Ifa Bayeza’s The Ballad of Emmett Till and Clare Cross’s Emmett Down My Heart, both of which premiered in 2008. 

Emmett Till (Wikipedia)

Emmett Till (Wikipedia)

The Theatre of Yugen production of Emmett Till,  a river differs from most other retellings and adaptations insofar as it does not expressly explore the murder, the perpetrators, or the trial.  Emmett Till appears in the play as a ghost; otherwise the focus is on the two women most closely linked to the story.  Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, reflects on sending her fourteen-year-old son to visit cousins in a social milieu very different from that of his native Chicago.  Carolyn Bryant, the white storekeeper’s wife, considers whether her actions made her culpable in the crime.

Mamie Till was originally from Mississippi, although her family relocated to Chicago when she was a small child.  Aware of the cultural differences Emmett could expect to encounter in the Delta, she tried to prepare him for the trip, on which she would not be accompanying him:

“I let [Emmett and a cousin] know that Mississippi was not Chicago. And when you go to Mississippi, you’re living by an entirely different set of rules. Ah, it is, ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am’, ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’. And Beau, if you see a white woman coming down the street, you get off the sidewalk and drop your head. Don’t even look at her.  He thought I was exaggerating, which I was. I was trying to exaggerate. If I could go high enough, I — things could seek soak into his head that ‘You have to be very careful.’” (from American Experience, The Murder of Emmett Till)

As Emmett’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, told an interviewer:

“The concern for Emmett was that he could be, with his fun-loving, free-spirited way of living, he could get in trouble, could have a lot of problems. He was fourteen, but he just turned fourteen. He was just thirteen just a few weeks before we went down there.” (from American Experience, The Murder of Emmett Till)

TurkelAfter the murder, Mamie Till did not simply grieve and shrink into obscurity.  Rather, by insisting on a glass-topped casket, she ensured widespread dissemination of the image of her disfigured son and rose to national prominence herself.  For the next several decades, she undertook speaking engagements, authored or co-authored books and plays, created and managed a theater ensemble (the Emmett Till Players), worked as a schoolteacher, established a foundation, and gave interviews including one used as the prologue to Studs Terkel’s compilation on Race.

Carolyn Bryant

Carolyn Bryant

It was Carolyn Bryant whose actions—first complaining to her sister-in-law, then affirming rumors that Emmett had behaved in a flirtatious way—triggered vengeance by her husband and one or more accomplices.   (Only two men were tried, but others were purportedly involved.)  What Emmett actually did, during the moments when he was alone with Bryant, is uncertain.  One theory is that he touched her hand while paying for some bubble gum, and some witnesses claimed to have heard him whistle suggestively as he left the store.  In her trial testimony, Carolyn Bryant described the incident in more incendiary terms (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/till/CarolynBryant.pdf).

Most people educated in the United States within the past fifty years have learned about Emmett Till in school. Those following the news in recent months will know of the parallels drawn between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, and will also have heard that PepsiCo severed a promotional contract with recording artist Lil Wayne after Emmett Till’s family (through the Mamie Till-Mobley Memorial Foundation) objected to an offensive song lyric.  Those wishing to refresh their knowledge of the historical context for Emmett Till, a river will find ample information online.  One good place to begin is the website for the American Experience documentary, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/index.html.

Teachers wishing to prepare young adults to see the Theatre of Yugen production might also consider assigning the following books aimed at teens:

  • Mississippi Trial, 1955 (2002)
  • Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case (2003)
Posted in Emmett Till | Leave a comment

Betwixt Yesterday and Tomorrow

As the days grow shorter and colder, another year comes to a close which is also an opening, and at the NOHspace, A Minor Cycle invites its audience to reflect on the journey that has brought us as individuals to the present moment.  It is no accident that each play in A Minor Cycle corresponds to a season: we learn from childhood to think of the years as minor cycles within our lives. (Yes, there are five plays, but summer and late summer are differentiated in Chinese philosophy.)


In Gramarye, Lucy Pevensie looks into a book for a spell that will make the invisible visible. Let us look with her and learn the magic that will help us see more clearly what we might have failed to notice in the bustle of everyday life. Let us also raise our voices to ensure that no one in our society is condemned to invisibility and neglect.

An Interesting Book, by Seymour Joseph Guy

An Interesting Book, by Seymour Joseph Guy

As a God play, Gramarye sets the spiritual tone for A Minor Cycle, and indeed the power of books to inspire is implicit in the whole program. For each play and the series of musical interludes between them, Greg Giovanni has turned to a book or story that enchanted him as a child and–in collaboration with the director, ensemble, musicians, and designers–has made the invisible visible to us, on the stage.

The Wizard, by Edmund Burne-Jones

The Wizard, by Edmund Burne-Jones

Steadfast Memory

In Steadfast Memory, a tin soldier remains true to his love, despite the scoffers and the terrifying trials he must endure. Let us celebrate all those instances in which we or those around us have preserved deeply held convictions despite obstacles. Let us especially celebrate love that survives the inevitable vagaries of shared experience.

Jo and Uba from the Noh play Takasago, by Totoya Hokkei (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Jo and Uba from the Noh play Takasago, by Totoya Hokkei (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

St. Matthew’s Fair

If there is sorrow in St. Matthews’ Fair, memory is also the greatest solace against loss. Let us hold in grateful recollection those whom we no longer see nor hear from day to day but whom we carry forward in our hearts.


Lady Jingly

In Lady Jingly, the lady must live with the consequences of her actions. So must we consider our own, with clarity but also with humor. The same “dorking hens” that remind us of our errors also help us to avoid repeating them.

Lest forget, we are here to remind you!

Lest forget, we are here to remind you!

George, Agnes, and the Dragon

And finally, with George, Agnes, and the Dragon, let us recognize that the most difficult demons to confront are our own.

Much More Precious Shall They Be Than Gold, from a manuscript in the Sloane collection at the British Library

Much More Precious Shall They Be Than Gold, from a manuscript in the Sloane collection at the British Library

When there is acceptance, there can be healing.  When there is compassion, there is a chance for peace.

Enjoy the show and the holiday season.

Posted in A Minor Cycle | Leave a comment