"First Noh & Kyogen Program Witnessed by Americans" in Boston December 7, 2004

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Three classic Japanese Noh & Kyogen plays first performed for President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant in Tokoy in 1879. Starring master Noh Actor, Umekawa Rokuro.

The Japan Society of Boston will present three classical Japanese theatre pieces in a special presentation at John Hancock Hall on Tuesday, December 7, 7:00 pm. "The First Noh & Kyogen Program Witnessed by Americans" is a re-staging of performances first introduced to Western audiences during a state visit to Japan by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1879. Co-produced by the Nohgaku Kyokai Association of Japan and the Japan Society of New York, the plays star Umewaka Rokuro whose great-grandfather performed for President and Mrs. Grant.

The program is part of the Japan Society of Boston’s Centennial Celebration and follows the highly acclaimed "Kabuki in Boston" which the Japan Society brought to Boston's Cutler Majestic Theatre for the first time in July, 2004. This troupe–featuring some of Japan's finest Noh actors–is touring the US in celebration of the 150th Anniversary of US-Japan relations which were formalized by Commodore Matthew Perry in the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854 and first opened Japan's doors to trade and cultural exchange with the United States (following 250 years of near-total seclusion).

"The First Noh and Kyogen Program Ever Witnessed by Americans" is a recreation of a historic performance that took place in Tokyo in 1879 when President Ulysses S. Grant was touring Japan with his wife. This was during a period of rapid modernization and Westernization of Japan following the opening of the country 25 years earlier. The Noh theatre and many other forms of traditional Japanese arts were threatened with extinction as the Japanese people abandoned their own arts in a rush to adopt European cultural forms that seemed more "modern."

Traditional forms of Japanese theatre were losing audiences and many Noh actors found themselves out of work. President Grant's Japanese hosts were at first reluctant to allow him to attend the Noh performance fearing that he wouldn't understand it or might find it inferior in quality. However, President and Mrs. Grant expressed special interest in the ancient artform and enjoyed the performance. Their approval is believed to have sparked new interest in Noh and helped rescue it from extinction.

This program will include the same plays viewed by President and Mrs. Grant in 1879 and the leading actor, Umewaka Rokuro, is the great-grandson of Umewaka Minoru who performed for the American president.

The highlight of the program will be the classic "The Earth Spider" depicting the battle of noble warriors trying to subdue a terrible Nature demon. Other features of the program will be an excerpt from the Noh play, "Mochizuki," and the comic Kyogen play, "Trapping the Fox." This program, rarely performed in Japan today, will give American audiences special insight into several of the greatest classics of the Noh tradition. Lead performer Umewaka Rokuro will be joined by a troupe of more than twenty of the finest Noh actors and musicians active on the Japanese stage today.

Noh is a much older performance tradition than Kabuki and its origins can be traced to the 13th and 14th centuries when it developed as a highly aristocratic form of theater, performed at the courts and castles of Japanese feudal lords (daimyo). Kabuki, by contrast, is a more popular form of theater that developed out of street performances in Japan's urban centers in the early 17th century. Noh is considered "high culture;" kabuki is popular "low culture."

The Noh drama is often compared to ancient Greek tragedy, not in its style of performance (which is uniquely Japanese), but in its seriousness of purpose and penetrating insight into universal human dilemmas. The texts of great Noh plays are poetic, literary masterpieces written in archaic Japanese that is barely understood by ordinary Japanese people today. In its performance style, it is highly stylized and takes place on a stage that is essentially bare using a few essential props. The acting combines dialogue and dance movement that is generally slow and stately with bursts of high energy at climactic moments. The principal actors are masked and wear elaborate silk brocade costumes that are formal and larger than life, making actors seem almost like moving sculptures onstage. The action often takes the form of a formalized dialogue between a leading actor (shite) and one or more supporting actors (waki) about the actions of a great heroic figure.

Most Noh plays are divided into two parts: in the first, the leading character recalls a critical moment in his life or in a previous incarnation; in the second part, the leading character returns to relive the spiritual effect of the earlier crisis: his revenge for an injustice or his triumph or transcendence over his previous guilt or suffering.

Peter Grilli, President of the Japan Society of Boston and a noted Noh/Kyogen expert, says: "This will be a particularly interesting theatrical presentation because it gives modern American audiences insight into the finest traditions of this classic form of Japanese theater. The fact that it recreates exactly the performance seen by President Grant in Japan in 1879 and will feature the great-grandson of the very actor who appeared before the American President is further indication of the enduring power of the Noh, which has a history of more than 600 years! Noh drama–when it is done well–has the same powerful effect as great Greek tragedy."

Tickets are:

$60-Japan Society Members only-special priority seating and post program reception with cast

$30 Japan Society Members-program only

$35 non-members-program only

$15 students-program only

For ticket information, call the Japan Society of Boston, 617-451-0726. John Hancock Hall is located at 180 Berkeley Street in Boston.

This six-city national tour is organized by the Japan Society of New York and produced by the Japan Society of New York and Nohgaku Kyokai (Association for Japanese Noh Plays) and supported by Bunkacho, Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan. Additional funding is provided by the Freeman Foundation and Toshiba International Foundation.

The Japan Society of Boston is a tax-exempt American organization whose mission is to promote cultural and economic ties and active interchange between Japanese and Americans for mutual understanding, benefit and enjoyment. As the oldest Japan Society in the United States, it serves as a bridge for a network of individuals, cultural and academic institutions and business and financial firms that are linked together by a strong interest in Japan and a shared recognition of the importance of the US-Japan relationship.

For additional information on "The First Noh & Kyogen Program Witnessed by Americans" or the Japan Society of Boston, contact Dawn Singh at 857-544-0739 or dawn@dawnsinghpublicity.com.

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Dawn Singh


Dawn Singh Publicity

75 Rossmore Road #4 o Jamaica Plain, MA 02130 o 857-544-0739 o (f) 617-395-7743



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