Zahdi Dates and Poppies: An Introduction

(Editor’s note: below is the introduction to Carrie Preston’s English-language noh works “Egret at San Diego Bay” and “Zahdi Dates and Poppies.” Preston draws from her own life experience in displaying contemporary settings for these plays. “Zahdi” is being scored by TN member David Crandall. Some development of “Zahdi” occurred during the TN Advanced Writers Workshop in Tokyo, 2010 with an exhibition of  the play performed at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in November, 2010.  The plays themselves will be posted in subsequent entries.)

Contributed by Carrie Preston
Associate Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality, Boston University

I joined the Noh Training Project at Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2008 as a part of my research for a book titled Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and the Pedagogies of Transnational Performance. I intended for the book to be a scholarly study of noh’s influence on Euro-American modernist drama, dance, and poetics, with chapters on Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Ito Michio, Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin Britten, and Samuel Beckett. Like so many who have studied noh and like the waki in so many plays, the journey I started has not been what I expected. And as with most challenging and rewarding pursuits, the reasons I have kept working  on noh were not the reasons I began. I have continued to write my book, which is currently under review, I am happy to report, but noh exerted its own gravity on the project, demanding that I “fall to my knees” and “learn to kneel” – in all the literal and figurative ways those phrases resonate. I discovered that my book would also need to be about my personal experience of studying noh in Bloomsburg and Tokyo with a Kanze actor, Furkuawa Mitsuru sensei. The book would need to tell of my encounter with the unique pedagogical format of the noh lesson, which I found tremendously challenging and humbling. It forced me to examine so many assumptions about “good” democratic teaching practices, “bad” hierarchical relationships, and the value of agency over submission.

Submitting to noh meant, of course, utai and shimai lessons, but it also meant that I would need to study the shodan structure. As a writer, I felt it would be best to “master” noh structures by trying to write them, but of course, they mastered me. I began work on a semi-autobiographical noh cycle, and I have now completed three of the plays. The first play tells the story of Mr. Hatashita, a Japanese native who, at the age of 80, single-handedly sailed a boat named Miya from California to Japan to return his wife’s ashes to the family shrine. He survived typhoons and entanglements with fishing vessels to reach the country of his birth. A few weeks later, his body was found on the sailboat, floating just off the coast of Japan, and he was then enshrined with his wife. Hata returns to tell his story to the couple that bought Miya and are struggling in their marriage, partially because of ramifications from the husband’s service in Iraq. He is a pilot for the U.S. Marines, and the warrior play excerpted in subsequent entries, Zahdi Dates and Poppies, stages his encounter with the insurgent he killed in Iraq and the fellow marine his bomb saved. The insurgent tells the story of his journey from his date farm to the rooftop in Al Anbar where he died. The play draws poetic parallels between the dead Iraqi insurgent and the marine who returned home. Both were rooted in their place and historical moment, just as the date palms and poppies are nurtured by the climate of Iraq and California.

(Continued in Pt. I of “Zahdi Dates and Poppies”…)

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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