Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'Emmett Till, A River'--Theatre of Yugen at NOHspace--This Weekend Only

By Ken Bullock
Friday November 15, 2013 - 09:37:00 AM

"What is blame when it is spread out so thin Across fields and rivers, miles and roads?"

Theatre of Yugen, the Bay Area's troupe practicing the rigors of classical Japanese theater, Noh and Kyogen, is celebrating its 35th season with something profoundly different, unusually successful ...

'Emmett Till, A River,' a new play following the outline of a Noh tragedy, by Kevin Simmonds and Judy Halebsky, incorporates the infamous story from 1955 of the murder of a 14 year old African American from Chicago, visiting relatives in Mississippi, and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, whose efforts to expose the hushed-up crime made her dead son a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Noh is a centuries-old, highly stylized, ritualized dance drama, usually known for its stately pace and use of masks and elegant costumery. What does a recondite traditional form from East Asia have to do with a sensational modern racial murder on America and its aftermath of seeking social justice? 

First of all, Noh has been deeply inspirational for modern theater. Since Ezra Pound turned Ernest Fenollosa's notes into poetic translations, influencing a major turn in the playwrighting of his friend, W. B Yeats, Noh plays have served as models or inspiration for masterworks such as Yeats' 'Purgatory,' Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 'Der Jasager' and Benjamin Britten's 'Curlew River.'  

Theatre of Yugen has made many adaptations of plays into Noh style over the decades, including 'Purgatory,' and here has used as a model an ancient play, 'Fujito,' credited to Noh's most illustrious performer, playwright and theorist, Zeami, of 14th century Japan, in which a general, rewarded for his service by being made governor of the district he conquered, is confronted by a local woman, who accuses him of killing her son and disposing of his body in secret.  

Many Noh tragedies, those inspired by Buddhist theology (there are older, more Shinto Noh plays, too), pivot around a particular setting, the memory of some event or personality, the appearance of a ghost who tells the tragic secret of its end. The object is, like the Greek tragic catharsis, to bring what's hidden and difficult to light and understanding, inspiring compassion and freeing the captive spirit. 

Yugen's staging, directed by artistic director Jubilith Moore, takes Noh's austere form and, if anything, makes it even sparer. There's no dance, none of the elaborate martial arts-style movement that characterizes the form. They call it a concert staging. But by concentrating on the stillness of the stage, the voices of actors and chorus, the sounds of musical instruments, the company recreates the poetic echo chamber of a Noh play, capturing the overtones and undertones of the story of Emmett Till. 

There are three ranks, or stations of performers onstage at NohSpace: at the back, stage left, two musicians, David Crandall on Nohkan (Noh transversal flute), Kotsusumi (the smaller, flexible-headed Noh drum) and Hyoshiban (a block of wood, struck with a fan), also uttering Kakegoe, the wail-like signals of Noh musicians that add to the ambiance--and Polly Moller on flute and bass flute; to their right, downstage, a chorus, which also plays instruments, Derek Lassiter, Khalil Sullivan (keyboards) and Dario Slavazza (clarinet) ... finally, downstage in front, the two actors, Sheila Berotti as Carolyn Bryant (in Noh terms, the Waki) and Lluis Valls as both Mamie Till and, later, Emmett Till. 

Carolyn Bryant was the white woman, a storekeeper, who Emmett Till allegedly whistled at (his crime!), and whose husband, after acquittal by an all-white jury, admitted to the murder--and was divorced by Bryant, who never commented on the events. But here, in slow, stylized speech, she talks, years later, about the heat of the night, the river (Tallahatchie River), sounds, thoughts ... The chorus slides in and out, lyrical lines about a Southern summer, a few notes or chords on an instrument, fingers snapping when the sounds shift, for a moment, to Chicago's South Side, hands clapping briefly Gospel-style in other moments ... 

The story rises up out of these lyrical impressions, that simmer with a vague uneasiness, when Lluis Valls, a performer of both power and subtlety, begins half-talking, half-chanting as Mamie Till, arriving in Mississippi, "not here to catch the sights!" As in Noh, a male performer doesn't disguise his voice when playing a female character, or persona. There's an increasing hypnotic effect, as Mamie Till confronts Carolyn Bryant, accuses her of complicity in her son's death. She denies it, but as the story unfolds, her demeanor changes, and Valls takes up the voice of long-dead Emmett Till addressing the last living witness to his fate. 

It's all very simple, but that simplicity is a pregnant moment--as Lessing, the first great dramaturge, called the image of great theater--that crystallizes a world of spoken and unspoken passion, secrets, remorse and pride. The aspect of the seven performers onstage is phenomenal, recalling the aura of Noh plays, where actors are "in character" only when in action, otherwise are deadpan participants, actors only, awaiting their moments of revelation. 

And 'Emmett Till, A River' is a revelatory experience, not a reenactment of a news story, but a poetic exploration of the souls of very different people caught up in unthinkable events. And a revelation of Noh itself, of what can be extracted from its venerable old tradition and pressed into service to express a different dimension of what makes up modern life.  

Theatre of Yugen has planned events around the performances, which have included appearances and commentary by members of the Till family. This is the final weekend. Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2, NOHspace, 2808 Mariposa (in Project Artaud, between Harrison and Bryant), San Francisco. $25. (415) 621-0507;