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 (   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 river  (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:

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

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.

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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
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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, 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 (

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

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)
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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.

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The Sword and the Girdle

Pilgrim's badge of St George, from Fettered Cock Pewters

Pilgrim’s badge of St George, from Fettered Cock Pewters

It is common knowledge, at least in the English speaking world, that George is the patron saint of England. I have long assumed that the English expression “By George!” related to the saint. People also know that George on some occasion vanquished a dragon, but as playwright Greg Giovanni observes, they “don’t know why, when, how.”

Among the most important literary sources for the tale is The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, which was the most often printed book in Europe from 1470 to 1530 (according to The Medieval Sourcebook).  It was also one of the first books printed in English, by William Caxton.

Pages from The Golden Legend, Caxton, from the website of Christie's auction house

Pages from The Golden Legend, Caxton, from the website of Christie’s auction house

The Golden Legend relates the story of a dragon that lived near the town of Silena, at the bottom of a lake, and that emerged regularly to terrorize the residents of the town by prowling around the city walls, “poisoning all who came within reach of his breath.”  To appease the beast, the burgesses of the town began by offering him two sheep per day, but eventually the population of sheep was decimated and the offering modified to consist of one sheep and one young person, drawn by lot.  When George appeared on the scene, the lot had fallen on the king’s daughter.  George promised to save her, but she urged him to flee, so that she alone might die.  And then:

St. George and the Dragon, by Paolo Uccello

St. George and the Dragon, by Paolo Uccello

While they were in speech, the dragon reared his head out of the lake.  All atremble, the maiden cried: ‘Away, sweet lord, away with all speed!’ But George, mounting his horse and arming himself with the sign of the cross, set bravely upon the dragon as he came toward him; and with a prayer to God, he brandished his sword, and dealt the monster a hurt that threw him to the ground.  And the saint said to the damsel: ‘Fear naught, my child, and throw thy girdle about the dragon’s neck!’ Thus she did, and the dragon, setting himself erect, followed her like a little dog on a leash. (from The Golden Legend)

Despite having been pacified, the dragon is slain at the behest of a terrified populace. Poor scaly thing.

St. George Overcoming the Dragon, by G F Watts

St. George Overcoming the Dragon, by G F Watts

Near the end of the sixteenth century, Edmund Spenser rewrote the story of Saint George in his opus The Faerie Queene (which I admit I was able to finish only because I happened to find myself in a hospital bed during one crucial week).  In Spenser, the Redcrosse Knight—later identified with Saint George—accompanies his lady Una to her home, where her parents are hostage to a dragon.  George and the dragon fight for three days, but the saint finally prevails.  This version of the tale is represented in a fresco by George Frederick Watts in the Palace of Westminster in London.

Greg Giovanni, of course, has his own ideas about Saint George.  I asked him how he became acquainted with the story as a child:

Another magician, from a 16th century alchemical manuscript

Greg’s Ilk, from a 16th century alchemical manuscript

The strongest memory I have is seeing the holy card in a St. Jude Shop.  ‘Mammu’ liked to take me there (she was convinced I would turn out a priest) and I liked the pretty vestments.  We would always look at the holy cards for people we knew… I was very attached to Michael the archangel and George.  I think it was the muscly violence … I also grew up with a 60’s version of The Children’s Hour, which had stories of knights in Volume 12.

In fact, one of Greg’s first plays—written when he was eight years old–was about Saint George.

In George, Agnes, and the Dragon, the demon play within A Minor Cycle, Greg pairs Saint George not with a young noblewoman but with the redoubtable Agnes of Rome, who was martyred at the age of twelve or thirteen for refusing to render her virginity.  The 4th century Latin poet Prudentius associates Agnes with a dragon—at least with a metaphorical one—in this excerpt from his “Passion of Agnes”:

Painted sculpture of St. Agnes at Burgos Cathedral

Painted sculpture of St. Agnes at Burgos Cathedral

She sees the raging whirlwind of human life 
And all the vanities of the fickle world:
Despots and kings, imperial power and rank,
The pageantry of honor and foolish pride,
The thirst for gold and silver, which all men seek
And gain by every species of wickedness,
The stately palaces with their gilded walls,
The vain display of richly embroidered robes,
The hatreds, fears, desires and impending woes,
The long enduring griefs and the fleeting joys,
Black envy with its smoking firebrands that blight
The hopes of men and tarnish all human fame,
And last, but worse than every other ill,
The sordid clouds and darkness of pagan rites.

All these things Agnes tramples beneath her feet,
And with her heel she crushes the dragon’s head,
That monster vile who poisons all things of time
And plunges them into the infernal pit.
But vanquished now and under the virgin’s foot
He lies crestfallen, prone in the dust of earth,
His fiery head not daring to lift again. 

George, Agnes, and the Dragon differs from all the other plays in A Minor Cycle in that, while each of the other plays is informed by a different Japanese theatrical style,  GAD is performed in a mixture of Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki, and Bunraku styling, with each actor performing in a different style.  In addition, whereas each of the other plays features one character type typical of Noh, GAD features several: a godlike figure (George), a soldier (Guard), a woman (Agnes), and a demon (Dragon).  As for madness, one might argue that the play itself, with four contrasting performance styles held in precarious tension, is an apt analog.

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Mystical Abyss Plot Synopsis

Masashi Nomura as Izanami, Photo credit Charline Formenty

Mystical Abyss is a new story incorporating characters from ancient Japanese and Iroquois mythologies.   In the production itself, this story is told largely through dance and animation, with segments of (often hilarious) narration delivered by Lluis Valls.

The following synopsis will also appear in the program notes, with sketches by costume designer Risa Lenore Dye.

Act I Ten/Heaven-Spirit

First we meet the Turtle. He tells us that in the beginning, there was no earth. The turtle and other sea creatures lived in the ocean. Birds lived in the space below the clouds. Above the clouds was a sky world illuminated not by the sun, which did not yet exist, but by a great tree. In this heavenly domain lived the sky people, one of whom was Sky Woman.

The Turtle begins to circle the stage, and story begins.

Sky Woman is married to a powerful chief in the sky country. She is pregnant. One day her husband has a dream. In the dream he creates an abyss in the sky country, and into the abyss he pushes his wife, who plunges through the clouds, then through the darkness, toward the sea.

Fire Dragon appears, dressed in white. He is a beneficent being who lives in the abyss. He gives Sky Woman seeds, which she will need in the world below, then leads her to the dark spirit world of Yominokuni.

As they travel, Fire Dragon tells Sky Woman the story of Izanami, whom we see revealed as a beautiful goddess, pregnant and dancing (see photo above).

Izanami and her husband Izanagi are the gods who, in Japanese mythology, created the land. After marrying, they gave birth to many gods representing natural phenomena. The last of these, the god of fire, scorched Izanami, causing her to pass from the world of the living to Yominokuni.

Sky Woman and Fire Dragon observe a reenactment of the traditional story concerning Izanami and Izanagi. Izanagi is stricken with grief after the death of his wife and journeys to the netherworld to try to retrieve her, but he is too late. She has already eaten some soup in that world and is therefore unable to return. Still, she asks Izanagi to wait and, above all, not to try to gaze upon her. Instead–in his eagerness!–he lights a torch and sees her in a state of decomposition. In terror he runs away, while his angry wife pursues him, attended by a troupe of female demons.

Flight of Izanagi, by Taketo Kobayashi and Koya Takahashi

Claiming humiliation, she threatens to retaliate by killing one thousand people a day. He replies that then he will bring one thousand five hundred people per day to life. This exchange sanctifies life and death as the interplay between these two gods.

Unlike Izanagi, Sky Woman sees Izanami as beautiful. She soothes the goddess by combing her hair with a magical comb.

Restored to calm, Izanami creates the Sun goddess Amaterasu, the Moon goddess Tsukuyomi, and the Storm god Susanoo from the darkness.

Act II Chi/Earth

Jesus Jacoh Cortes as Susanoo, Photo credit Charline Formenty

After leaving Yominokuni, Sky Woman continues to fall toward the sea.

Birds and water animals see her falling and know she needs a solid place to land. Fish hawks try to carry her, but eventually they tire. Finally an otter brings up some mud from the sea. Sky Woman spreads the mud on the back of a giant turtle, where it becomes the land.

Sky Woman gives birth to a daughter.

Amaterasu (the Sun) appears. She is one of the children Izanami bore after being comforted by Sky Woman.

Susanoo (the Storm) appears next. He is another one of the children Izanami bore. He is very unruly. He destroys everything on earth, killing Sky Woman. But Sky Woman’s daughter is saved.

Amaterasu is shocked by her brother’s acts of destruction and retreats into a cave, causing all the earth and the heavens to fall into darkness.

The Sun Retreats Into the Cave of Iwato, by Taketo Kobayashi

Act III Jin/Humanity

Susanoo’s destruction and Amaterasu’s grief are recapitulated.

Everyone is depressed in a world without sunlight. People, animals, and plants come together to decide how to lure Amaterasu out of hiding. The daughter of a medicine man says she has the solution. She dances an ecstatic (slightly risqué) dance.

The dance makes everyone happy. Everyone in the community laughs and joins in the fun.

Hearing the noise, Amaterasu is curious and comes out of her cave. The light returns!

Amaterasu dances, moving toward the mound where Sky Woman was buried and scattered her seeds. There a small tree is revealed, a white pine, the Tree of Peace. All those assembled call out the word for “peace” in their own ancestral languages.

The Turtle returns to circle the stage, and the sacred cycle of light and darkness continues like the cycle of the moon.

Jomon-inspired Cosmic Turtle, by Taketo Kobayashi

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Amaterasu and the Virtue of Art

Costume Sketch for Amaterasu, by Risa Dye

It stands to reason that, once agriculture was established in Japan in the Yayoi period, the populace would revere the sun, guarantor of an abundant harvest, and be threatened by storms, which could destroy the rice crop and wreak havoc on man-made structures.  Indeed, although the story of Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess) and Susanoo (the Storm God) is usually interpreted as an allegory of the conflict between two clans, the Kojiki describes the depradations of the storm god literally as:

  • Wrecking the divisions of the rice fields laid out by Amaterasu
  • Filling the irrigation ditches
  • Strewing excrement in the hall used for tasting the first fruits of the harvest, and
  • Damaging the roof of a building in which Amaterasu and her maidens were weaving

(In addition, a maiden dies from the introduction of a weaving shuttle into her genitals, suggesting another reading of Susanoo’s ultimate infraction.)

In Mystical Abyss, the damage wrought by Susanoo is amplified to cosmic proportions.  He destroys everything on earth:

Susanoo Destroys Everything on Earth, by Koya Takahashi

Mythology instructs by means of metaphors and magnifications, but all of us are well acquainted with examples of devastation occurring on a more limited scale.  Every year in different parts of the world, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes—not to speak of war and other varieties of organized or random violence–destroy lives and livelihoods.  Under these circumstances, I am always impressed by how easily journalists find intrepid individuals who have “lost everything” and yet stand bravely before a camera, a day or a week after the fact, and vow to “rebuild.”  I am one of those who, faced with calamity, would be tempted to crawl into a hole–to face my emotions and gather my thoughts very far from the nearest camera.   In her distress, Amaterasu does what I would want to do:  she hides for a while. 

Amaterasu Goes into Hiding, by Koya Takahashi

The idea of taking time for melancholy, especially to grieve, is by now well accepted in most circles, but as anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one knows, it is seldom possible to take that restorative time, because most of us have others who depend upon our care, and in Amaterasu’s case, everyone else suffers because her absence leaves the world in darkness.  Finally, her fellow gods contrive a plan to help her and themselves.  They stage a show, as described here, and hearing their laughter, the goddess peers out of her cave, where she sees the reflection of her own face in a mirror hanging from a tree.  

Mystical Abyss varies the classical story by having the sacred dance performed by the daughter of a Native American medicine man.

Practitioners of Japanese performing arts, from Noh to Taiko, cite the story of Amaterasu’s retreat and reemergence as evidence for the ceremonial origins of their chosen art forms.   The tale is also of central importance in the Shinto religion:  because Amaterasu is tricked out of her cave by her own image, as seen in a mirror, that sacred object—ostensibly the same mirror in which Amaterasu saw herself—is ensconced in the most sacred shrine of the Ise Grand Shrine complex.  Think about the implication:  a high priest or priestess looking upon this holy object would see not the features of some divine Other, but his or her own reflection.   Incidentally, the mirrors that were imported to Japan from the Asian mainland during the Yayoi period were not made of glass and fitted in a frame, but were round and made of bronze.  The following photograph shows the non-reflective side of a mirror unearthed from a tomb of the Kofun period.  Notice how much it resembles a mandala:

An Ancient Bronze Mirror

Even for those who do not practice Shinto or Japanese performing arts, the story of Amaterasu is a powerful fable.  Art beckons the goddess out of hiding so she can see her own face in the mirror.  The virtue of art lies in its power to help us see ourselves.

Stylized Image of Amaterasu, by Koya Takahashi

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The Tale and the Telling

Mystical Abyss is richly choreographed, as befits a dance drama, with original music and elaborate animation to heighten the sensory experience, but it is also narrated–mostly in English–and can be enjoyed both for its spectacle and for the story it tells.

Sky Woman’s Journey
The simplest way to conceive of the plot is as a linear trajectory in which Sky Woman:

  • Is ejected from heaven,
  • Embarks on a “night-sea journey” that encompasses both the watery world and the shadowy land of the dead, and
  • Is reborn on earth, amid the flourishing of human culture and art

Mystical Abyss reflects a cosmology in which the Universe is divided into layers, like one mandala registered upon another, or like celestial spheres in Neo-Platonic philosophy. Like the pilgrim of Dante’s Commedia, the Sky Woman of Mystical Abyss traverses successive planes of existence, but whereas Dante’s pilgrim begins on earth, travels through the netherworld, ascends a mountain, and ends his pilgrimage in heaven, Sky Woman begins in heaven, travels through the netherworld, and ends her pilgrimage on earth, among human beings. The netherworld in Mystical Abyss is not underground, as in some mythologies, but occupies a liminal realm between heaven and earth, allowing Sky Woman to pass through it as she falls toward the sea.   (In the following diagram by animator Koya Takahashi, the netherworld is labeled by its Japanese name, Yomi-no-kuni.)

World of Mystical Abyss, by Koya Takahashi

Concentric Narratives
Upon closer inspection, the narrative structure of Mystical Abyss consists of several concentric narratives:

  • The cosmic turtle, which appears only at the beginning and end of the play, should be understood to be circling throughout the play. Within this implicit circle
  • Sky Woman and her Husband dance, and then her Husband falls asleep and dreams. Within his dream
  • Sky Woman undertakes her pilgrimage, encountering various helpful spirits and animals. On her journey
  • She encounters Izanami and Amaterasu, each of whom also passes, literally and metaphorically, from light to dark and back again.

Mystical Abyss Narrative Structure

Thus the frame story of the cosmic turtle encompasses a dream vision, which encompasses a pilgrimage narrative, which encompasses, among other features, a netherworld journey (katabasis).

Notice that the story structure, when considered in this way, challenges the impression one might otherwise receive that women have all the creative power in Mystical Abyss. It is, after all, Sky Woman’s husband who dreams the story and the turtle who bears the universe on his back. And of course, we are indebted to John O’Keefe for his creation, the script.

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Izanami: Goddess of Death and Rebirth

How dark it is, and cold. All other night journeys were practice for this one.

Hidden in the Mists, Ty Michelfelder (used by permission)

The moon, born from utter darkness, waxes.  There behind the clouds, even there behind the darkness, not blazing and dangerous to behold like the sun, but gentle, with a graceful light.  There is a reason sweethearts hold hands in the moonlight, mysterious as love. 

Here in the silence we wait, far from the hubbub of phones ringing, sirens wailing, people laughing, people crying, shots being fired, speeches being made, arguments, machines whirring.

Izanagi came by himself, tense and unready. He saw exactly what he feared. (How many of us have seen what we feared and wildly attacked it? Fear is how war often begins. ) But we are not alone now: we have Sky Woman with us–Sky Woman who did not choose to be thrown into the dark but who, like a seed, blossomed anyway, giving birth. The seed, resting in darkness beneath the earth, is the source of new life.

Sky Woman as a Seed, Taketo Kobayashi

Sky Woman combs our hair, or maybe the hair of just one of us, but her gesture reminds us all of those “hundred strokes before bed” that never made us more beautiful but did help us relax, so we could sleep.

Magical Comb, Taketo Kobayashi

In the dark, there is a glow.  Did someone light a lantern?  Poor Izanagi, when he came, was so distraught that when his light broke in, he saw only this image, wild and terrible:

Izanami, Goddess of Death, Koya Takahashi

But see, on the other side there is another image, charming as the moon and welcome as a warm bath at the end of the day.  “Beautiful lady dressed in night,” intones Sky Woman.  This is Izanami, lady of death and rebirth.  Like the new moon with all that beauty hidden behind it.

Izanami, Goddess of Rebirth, Koya Takahashi


One of Director Yuriko Doi’s inspirations for Mystical Abyss was a Jomon-period lantern representing two aspects of the same goddess. 

Lamp of the goddess

Yuriko writes, “The hollow center of the lamp symbolizes the womb.  On one side is the face of the goddess, with slanting eyes.  On the back is the image of a serpent, with ten holes surrounding it, representing the cycle of the moon.  These are Izanami’s two sides.  And a related notion I want to emphasize is that birth and death are also not a vertical line.  Birth, death, and rebirth are cyclical, like the moon…”

To express these ideas, Yuriko Doi has reformulated the story of Izanami in a way that combines Japanese with Iroquois myth.  In the Kojiki, it is Izanagi who gives birth to the three deities representing the sun, the moon, and the storm.  In the Nihonshoki, which was compiled a few years later, Izanami gives birth to those deities before she dies and descends to Yominokuni.  It is Yuriko’s innovation in Mystical Abyss to have Izanami give birth even after her death, reflecting a cosmology in which death is inherently pregnant with new life.  And whereas in the Japanese myth, Izanagi lights his comb to use as a torch, Sky Woman uses her magical comb to pacify Izanami, evoking the action of Hiawatha, who in Iroquois legend combed the snakes from the hair of the redoubtable Onondaga chief Atotarho to secure a lasting peace. 

The Mystical Abyss is a place unlike any you have visited before.  

For more information about the show, see the Theatre of Yugen website.  To buy tickets, use this link: .

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Betrayal and Becoming

The betrayal of a woman by a man she might have expected she could trust is a recurrent theme in Japanese literature, mythology, and folklore, and in the stories selected for Mystical Abyss.  This article presents some examples and proposes one creative way to prepare–or for teachers to prepare students–for the experience of Mystical Abyss.

A Noh Play and a Fairytale

In the Noh play Kurozuka  (The Black Mound), a Buddhist monk and his followers are traveling through a northern province of Japan and arrive at the foot of a mountain as darkness falls.   They approach a lonely house inhabited by an aged lady who first denies their request for lodgings because of the decrepit state of her dwelling.  However, because her house is the only one in the area and it is too late for the travelers to move on in search of other accommodations, she finally relents and allows them to stay.  During the evening, she shows them her spinning wheel, then tells them that she must go outside to gather firewood.  She exacts a promise from them not to look into her bedroom during her absence, but of course, one of them does look and discovers several dead bodies.  When the woman returns and realizes what has happened, she transforms herself into an ogre and chases the men, who fear that she might eat them.  Ultimately–as commonly happens in Noh plays–she is subdued by the ardent prayers of her quarry and, I always like to think, by the compassion of the audience as well.  (In the West, this practice of participating in the action by lending one’s own heart is not ritualized as in Noh, but if you ever clapped to save Tinkerbell, the concept should not seem entirely foreign.)

Kurozuka, Tsukioka Kogyo

In the Japanese fairytale called The Crane Wife,   a lonely sail-maker finds an injured crane outside the door of his hut after a storm.  Gently, he cradles it in his arms, brings it inside, and nurses it back to health.  At some later time, a lovely young woman appears at the sail-maker’s house.  Eventually, he and the woman marry, but life is harsh, and the two are scarcely able to earn enough to feed themselves.  Finally, the wife offers to weave a special sail, on one condition:  her husband must not look into the room where she does her work.   The sail she produces is so fine that it fetches a high price, but before long the couple again find themselves destitute, and this time the husband, overcome with curiosity, peers into the weaving room while his wife is at work.  There he sees her, in the form of a crane, weaving her feathers—her own substance—into the wonderful cloth.  Seeing that he has broken his promise, she cries out in despair, takes wing, and is gone forever.

Crane on a gift-wrapping cloth

Goddess Stories

Mystical Abyss relates two stories from ancient Japanese mythology in which a woman also feels betrayed by a man, and as in Kurozuka and The Crane Wife, each betrayal involves the violation of sacred territory.   When Izanagi follows his wife Izanami to the land of Yomi, she expressly asks him not to look upon her in the darkness.  When he nonetheless lights a flare to look, she is horribly transformed and pursues him, accompanied by furies.   Her first instinct is retaliation:  “If thou do this, I will in one day strangle to death a thousand of the folks of thy land!”  The traditional Noh mask pictured here is called Deijya; in Mystical Abyss, the irate Izanami will wear a mask inspired by this one.

Deijya, from Omote the Kanze Soke Noh Collection

If the story of Izanami has some motifs in common with Kurozuka, that of Amaterasu, the tutelary goddess of Japan, shares with The Crane Wife a man’s violation of the domain in which a woman practices her creative arts.   After several acts of desecration that Amaterasu wincingly tolerates, her impetuous brother Susanoo violates her sacred weaving hall.  Scandalized, Amaterasu withdraws into a cave.   Her first instinct is retreat.  The part of Mystical Abyss that retells this story refers, in language and choreography, to the Noh play Ema, a “god play” that narrates the retreat and reemergence of Amaterasu. 

Ema, Tsukioka Kogyo

Japanese folklore and mythology seem to express, at nearly every turn, a concern with male incursion on feminine mysteries.  In Yuki-onna a woodcutter (or other male protagonist, depending on the version) must not divulge a secret that the Snow Woman has entrusted to him, and in Urashima Taro the enchantment depends on Taro’s not opening a magical box the Sea Princess has given him.  Men invariably fail these tests.

Collective Memory, Ty Michelfelder (used by permission)

The other major story line in Mystical Abyss is Iroquois rather than Japanese.   Upon hearing that his wife is pregnant, Sky Woman’s husband creates an abyss and pushes her into it, ejecting her from their home in the idyllic Sky Country and propelling her into free fall toward the sea.   Fire Dragon meets her in mid-air and offers her grain and meat.  Far below, concerned animals hurry to curb her fall.  Her first instinct is receptivity:   she allows others to help her.

Crucially, in Mystical Abyss each woman finds a way to respond to injury and reassert her creative power.   (For a more complete narration of each story, as told in traditional sources, see

Fan, Ty Michelfelder (used by permission)

Entering the Mystical Abyss

Art transforms the artist, as anyone who writes or paints or performs can attest, but the purpose of art is to help members of its audience transform themselves.   In this spirit, I invite you to undertake an exercise that will both orient you to the show and demonstrate at least one way to relate the experience of live theater to your own life.  

  1. Consider a contemporary or historic experience of betrayal–maybe in your own experience or that of someone you know, or of a group of people with whom you are able to identify.
  2. Write a poem, a story, a journal entry, or one or more dramatic scenes that reenact the betrayal and revisit the victim’s reaction.   How did it feel to experience the injustice, insult, or violence?  What did you or the victim do in response?  If you are more interested in exploring an alternative response, follow that trail instead.  The idea that excites you is the one you will express most effectively.
  3. Optionally discuss your work with one or more interested people.  Students will benefit from reading and critiquing each other’s writing in a workshop setting. 
  4. When you come to see Mystical Abyss, be especially alert to how Sky Woman, Izanami, and Amaterasu each manage to achieve a creative outcome.  What is it that enables each character to overcome her sorrow?  In what ways does Sky Woman’s journey give structure to all of Mystical Abyss?
  5. Revise your own work if you like, making use of any new ideas suggested by the experience of Mystical Abyss.  Maybe complicate your work by adding Amaterasu, Izanami, or Sky Woman as a character.

Feel free to indulge in this game, even if you are not a student participating in the educational outreach program for Mystical Abyss.  Reflect upon your own story or a story that matters to you, and bring those thoughts with you to the show.

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