Contributed by Kevin Salfen, University of the Incarnate Word
At the heart of Theatre Nohgaku’s experiment is an interest in relating and perceiving stories through the filter of noh. But “filtering” is an inadequate metaphor, implying that noh stands between us and the real event. Perhaps it hits closer to the mark to say that noh is like a crystal vessel into which Theatre Nohgaku pours stories, so that those stories fill up their new form entirely, becoming them, just as the crystal—beautiful by itself—gains from its association with the new colors of its content.
I write this with a specific example in mind.
I once considered writing a noh based on a section from The Devil’s Highway, Luis Alberto Urrea’s account of a disastrous border crossing that occurred in 2001. During that failed crossing, a group of Mexican men, led by profiteers (called “coyotes”), attempted to get into the US by walking through one of the most desolate—brutal, deadly—regions in the Americas. The group got lost, and, blinded and baked by the sun, they wandered through the wilderness until, one by one, the desert took fourteen of them. “The Yuma Fourteen,” as they have occasionally been called in the press.
One of the most powerful aspects of Urrea’s telling of the story was how he gave as much humanity to each of those fourteen (and to others of the group who survived) as sources would allow. Among the dead were a father and son, Reymundo Barreda Maruri and Reymundo Jr. And their story was the part of Urrea’s book that I imagined as a noh play. As Urrea describes it, in a passage throughout which the author uses what could aptly be called poetic license, Reymundo Jr. had been suffering, faltering for many long miles, his father doing what he could to prop him up. And, as men began to drop, Reymundo Jr. also collapsed, dying in his father’s arms. Once this had happened, the father walked away into the emptiness, shouting, crying, perhaps tearing apart the US dollars he had saved for use on his arrival, finally swimming in the dirt “as if he’d fallen into a cool stream” until the sun finished him off, too.
Almost immediately after reading Urrea’s book in the late summer of 2008, I began to imagine the part of the story concerning the Maruris as a noh: the father as the shite, the son as the kokata, Urrea himself or possibly a nameless journalist as the waki, a kyogen comprised of radio communication between a border agent and dispatcher.
And why did this occur to me? Why should I have poured this story, almost involuntarily, into the vessel of noh?
Perhaps it was because it triggered associations with Sumidagawa, a noh turning on the death of a child and the grief of a mother. Or because of links with a subject I was thinking about frequently at the time: the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, in which the sun thwarts the ambitions of father and son, both of whom seek an escape from the bonds that fate and nature had set upon them. But in Sumidagawa and the Daedalus myth, the parent is left behind to mourn unthinkable loss. Not so for the Maruris.
Another possibility is that this story of loss—too tragic, too terrible—although powerfully related by Urrea, was yet insufficiently expressed through words. That is, words alone could neither contain nor communicate the emotional magnitude of the Maruris’ pointless suffering. The language of symbols takes over where the conventional lexicon leaves off; because of its ambiguity, the unknown limits of its significance, the language of symbol more nearly fits emotional extremity. In this sense, noh was not a way for me to abstract the Maruris’ story, to divest it of its emotional impact by converting it into aesthetic exercise, but a way to permit suffering a fuller significance. To allow the emotions tied up with such senseless loss to be more than an explosive reaction and to align them with meditation made physical: forms moving through time and space, the concretization of thought.
I mentioned earlier that I had “once thought” of writing this noh, and that is true. I understand now that I will not do it, for various reasons, but I often find myself wondering whether those who love noh—members of Theatre Nohgaku particularly—play out in their minds moments of intense feeling in this form. I call it “nohscaping.”