INDIALOGUE

Resisting Forgetting with Chiori Miyagawa

Chiori Miyagawa’s delicate and precisely imagined work for theatre is haunted by time’s passing and the remains of historical and cultural memory that her fragmented, contemporary characters are left to sift through in order to become whole. From America Dreaming (1995) to Woman Killer (2001) to Red Again (2004, part of Antigone Project), Miyagawa has focused her dramatic attention on the intersections between cultures, time, and the active collisions of identity that define the geographically and emotionally displaced.

In her new piece Thousand Years Waiting, co-produced by her NYC-based company Crossing Jamaica Avenue and Performance Space 122, she re-tells and re-imagines the 11th century romance The Tale of Genji for a new audience. In this masterpiece of Japanese literature written by a lady of the court Murasaki Shikibu, the life and loves of Lord Genji are recounted in richly symbolic detail. Shikibu examines the nature of idealized love and the misspent actions of Prince Genji. Miyagawa frames her re-telling through the story of a contemporary woman reading the memoir of Lady Sarashina, who is in turn recounting the Genji story.

Moving through three layers of reality, Miyagawa’s New York City heroine falls into the fictional narratives and interacts/re-lives parts of her inherited memory. Miyagawa’s piece challenges Western dramatic notions of time and space, and resists the dominance of one narrative over another. She shares with many post-colonial artists the critical ability to transform dominant discourse, while at the same time embracing the difficult and hard-won position of a woman’s rite/right, in particular, to transform herself in a new landscape.

“I imagine that there is a common essence in all women from all times and places. This essence may differ from culture to culture, from one era to another; but I believe that it’s something indestructible that holds all of humankind together,” she related to me in a recent interview. “I don’t have a definition for it, but it has to do with the patience that women have manifested for survival through brutal times (that still continue in much of the world). In Thousand Years Waiting, the woman in the present realizes that life is not an individual trajectory that begins and ends, but rather a cycle that continues and is shared by the whole of humanity.”

Indeed, in Miyagawa’s plays, figures are seen time and again in personally transitional or migratory states of awareness and remembering in order to come to a shared understanding of their individual and collective place in the world. “The woman in Thousand Years Waiting is able to acquire this knowledge because of many, many years of storytelling by those who came before her,” says Miyagawa. “The future is possible because of memory. I think women are good at remembering. We have always resisted forgetting, however sad, however difficult the particulars.”

For Miyagawa as for many artists consciously working across cultures, the re-inscribing of “lost” or “forgotten” stories is central to the manner in which dramatic narratives are woven. Resisting the temptation to erase the past, her characters, often un-named, move through the interstices of time to reconstruct or recover their ancestors’stories. Her plays, whether explicitly dealing with dislocation or not, seek to retrace the footprints of those who came before by dramatizing or enacting (and sometimes re-enacting) the contested memories of her displaced, migrant, ex-pat or seemingly at-ease subjects. “I’m not consciously resisting Western concepts, but my personal time and space are not neatly organized. They are randomly magical,” she explains. However, the neat divide between the spiritual and material usually present in the governing narratives of Western and certainly US culture are most likely to dissolve in Miyagawa’s plays.

A (woman today)
Time passes while you are counting blessings. Time passes as you are laying out items from your closets on your bed to decide what to keep, what to throw away. Time passes despite your dreams, or because of your dreams.

Sister’s visit. They are middle-aged now.

B (Lady Sarashina)

My sister has taken a leave from her husband to visit me. It’s good to see you again, sister.



On the thirteenth night of September, the moon is orange and grand. I sit on the veranda with my sister to watch the moon.

C (sister)
What do you think happens after death?

B (Lady Sarashina)
Why are you thinking about it?

C (sister)
I don’t know. I feel lonely.

B (Lady Sarashina)
Hold my hand, sister.

C (sister)
I have something to tell you.

B (Lady Sarashina)
It’s still far far away. We have many moons to see before we part.

C (sister)
I have something to tell you.

B (Lady Sarashina)
Hold my hand.

Instead of taking Lady Sarashina’s hand, sister moves her arms as if they are wings.

C (sister)
I’ll fly away to the moon!

B (Sarashina) gasps in fear and reaches over to her sister as if to prevent her from flying away.

C disappears.

B (Lady Sarashina)
After I lost my sister, I began dreaming about her. In the dream, we are little girls traveling through white dunes. But I always wake up and lose her again.

A (woman today)
But you will find her again.

— From Thousand Years Waiting

The hopeful possibility of return is alive in Thousand Years Waiting. Working with composer Bruce Odland and director-choreographer Sonoko Kawahara, Miyagawa has orchestrated a romance that questions the very idea of love and its implicit promise of being eternal or un-broken. The active yearning for love and the anticipation of the beloved (the waiting) frames much of the storytelling. But within it is also the simultaneity of being: the ability for the lover and the beloved to be in the same space even though they do not yet know each other.

“Love is tricky for me. I don’t trust it. I think our culture endorses full-heartedly the stereotypically safe love that everyone can agree on. The love of a mother for her children, for example. Also we like to think that love never fades. But I personally see potential for damage in all love, and moreover, I don’t think any love stays put,” she explains. “In the memoir, Lady Sarashina longs lovingly for a man whom she met only twice and possibly does not even know what he looks like. But there is hardly any mention of her husband or children who came later in her life. I was interested in this contradiction, interested in how Lady Sarashina longs for a prince who does not exist, how the women in The Tale of Genji are destroyed by one playboy, Prince Genji. I’m much more attracted to the fiction that people create around the theme of love than an examination of what love really is.” The geography of love, therefore, that Miyagawa maps in this play (as in many of her other works) is fraught with hurt, with wounding, even before the figures begin to entertain the concept or reality of the beloved.

The potentiality for damage is intertwined with constructions of identity and the retrieval of memory in Miyagawa’s deceptively simple, poetic plays as a whole and in this piece particularly. The women in the fictional and “real” worlds presented on stage are haunted by stasis and regret. They are poised, though, to change or be changed by their experiences. In fact, it’s not surprising that this play was originally titled Crossings over its two-year development with Voice & Vision, for the text crosses not only temporal and spatial planes but also emotional ones where the ability to take love in hand is central.

C (sister)
You may not even notice it when it happens to you. You inhale the scent of pine trees, and when you exhale, you may already be dead. The pine scent is engraved somewhere deep in your soul. In your next life, the scent will follow you everywhere. That’s how you know about the moment of your previous death.

A (woman today)
In your next life, you look for answers to unknown questions. And one day, you come across a diary written in another time in another country in another language. You gain some answers even though you still don’t know what the questions are.

B (Lady Sarashina)
It’s still far far away. We have many moons to see before we part.

C (sister)
The only sad thing is, you won’t remember anything else. If we meet in the next life, we won’t know that we were sisters once. We would be different people.

B (Lady Sarashina)
That’s not how it happens. We’ll be the same people, only in a different place.

C (sister)
Where? (giggly) The moon?

B (Lady Sarashina)
Somewhere like the moon, gentle and beautiful. Hold my hand.

Instead of taking Lady Sarashina’s hand, sister moves her arms as if they are wings.

C (sister)
I’ll fly away to the moon!

B (Sarashina) gasps in fear and reaches over to her sister as if to prevent her from flying away.

A reads from the book.

A (woman today)
“The street merchant’s voice echoes in the lateness of the night.”

“Oginoha. Oginoha.”

C (sister)
Let’s sit all night until dawn.

Thousand Years Waiting exemplifies Miyagawa’s tender and celebratory quality as a dramatist, and her ability to crystallize dramatic moments with grace. Drawing on the early 20th century Japanese puppetry of Otome (female) Bunraku, which was created because women were not allowed to perform traditional puppetry, Miyagawa and her collaborators Kawahara and Odland offer eloquent testimony to how a woman living in New York City today can connect to a woman in Kyoto in the year 1000 as well as to the fictional women in The Tale of Genji. Moving past damage and through the “remembered,” a process of healing and transformation is offered in this text. Recalling the more quietly intimate works of Maria Irene Fornes, Miyagawa releases her searching characters to the possible beauty within themselves and the world.

Thousand Years Waiting, by Chiori Miyagawa, conceived and directed by Sonoko Kawahara, runs from February 23 to March 12 at Performance Space 122. Tickets: $20, at www.ps122.org

Chiori Miyagawa is an associate professor of theatre at Bard College. Her play America Dreaming will be published by Seagull Books in an anthology, Global Foreigners, edited by Carol Martin and Saviana Stanescu in the fall 2006.

Caridad Svich is resident playwright of New Dramatists and editor of, among others, Divine Fire: Eight Contemporary Plays Inspired by the Greeks (BackStage Books). Visit her at www.caridadsvich.com




IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: editorial@brooklynrail.org

Contributor

Caridad Svich

Caridad Svich is a playwright-lyricist-translator-editor and founder of theater alliance NoPassport. Her play Instructions for Breathing premieres this spring at Passage Theater in NJ under Daniella Topol's direction.

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