West of Lenin’s Demon Dreams: Folklore and Forgetfulness

In the Shinto religion of Japan there are eight million spirits that surround humanity. Each spirit has two aspects: nigimitama, the gentle and good nature, and aramitama, which is violent. This dualism is the heart of Tommy Smith’s Demon Dreams. The story does not deal with demons in the American horror movie sense, but rather in the ancient sense: demons are humans stripped of their humanity. In the Hebrew or Christian connotation, humanity is stripped from human beings by satanic forces–the Alphabet of Sirach story of Lilith, for instance. In the Asian sense, however, humanity is not taken by force but given up by personal actions that are evil. This theme is common in Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Shinto as well, and this is the basis for Mr. Smith’s story.

True to its folkloric roots, the story is elegantly simple. Three male aramitama one rainy night meet three female nigimitama and they trade fairy tales about humans and demons, each with a moral, each representing one negative aspect of the aramitama, each incomplete. Mr. Smith’s script draws upon the rich tradition of oni folklore and turns it toward an oblique purpose. Its purpose is moral, certainly, but it is also ironic. Evil, in its banality here, requires forgetfulness. As in the original folk tales, humans become demons as they forget their dual nature and lose their self-control, allowing their aramitama to take over completely.

Mr. Smith’s handling of the circular narrative is quite refreshing and refuses to become yet another simple story that gives easy answers. The ending even calls into question the entire evening’s storytelling itself. It is a substantial and enjoyable script, aided by six extremely good actors. Matthew Aguayo, Carter Rodriquez, Heather Persinger, Susanna Burney, Chris MacDonald and Sara Peterson give the production their all.

There is, however, a disturbing narrow range among the cast. It is on this issue this production of Demon Dreams enters troubled territory. Quite frequently, images of oni are a metaphor for the Other in Japanese society. Here they are clearly a symbol for the Self, and the forces within. The problems on stage are representational problems. In the absence of a truly multi-ethnic cast, certain divisions of class and race arise on the stage that are unintentional yet still bear discussion. For instance, the two Latinos on stage are both male and both demons. The purpose of the three nigimitama women is to drive some sense into them and make them remember their deeds in effort to save humanity. But the actresses even in their makeup are clearly white Caucasians–just listen to them try to spit rhymes. The consequence is that it appears that a group of white Caucasians are bringing morality to the demonic Latinos.

I am not suggesting that producer A.J. Epstein intends this reading. I know him well enough by his past works to believe that he would never intend such a message. Yet there it is. It is an instance where the lack of ethnic actors in the cast works to undermine the play, which is written with the explicit intent to include a diverse cast. It is, after all, essentially based in hip hop and hardly meant to be exclusive to white actors.

Poster by Chris Booth

Poster by Chris Booth

I have certainly noticed that where the dance community long ago embraced the phrase, in the Seattle theater world the term “hip hop” virtually guarantees box office poison. “Traditional wisdom” is that the middle-class, white, over-50 consumers are the only audience Seattle’s artistic directors and marketers seem to believe they should try to reach–a phenomenon noticed even by the generally oblivious Misha Berson. Washington, DC has had a hip hop theater festival for over ten years with an obvious degree of success, but apparently the stereotype for an audience member for a Seattle play is not sufficiently flexible. It’s a sad commentary on the narrowness of thought in our community.

Yet the New York run of Demon Dreams by the Magic Futurebox Theater was explicitly billed as “a hip hop story theater play.” I do wonder why that subtitle does not exist in the Seattle version. Fear of hip-hop? Fear of story? Fear of theater?

It is a weakness of the production that it does not completely embrace the hip hop aesthetic. For instance, the original production featured sound design and beat production by DJ Spooky. Now, DJ Spooky is positively legendary and one of the top ten DJs in the world. But Seattle has its own hip hop artists and DJs. I suspect if Mr. Epstein had called up Sabzi or DJ Riz or someone similar, one of them might have jumped at the chance. Reaching intelligently outside of the theater community, particularly when it insists on being narrow, can only strengthen a production. It would certainly have strengthened this one.

On most levels, I enjoyed the show. I particularly loved the production design and how it included various idiophones as part of the set and costumes for music-making. There are various touches of genius like this throughout the show. But, too, I am not just a theatergoer who goes to enjoy plays superficially. The production raises issues that it does not treat sufficiently. I should like to see another production of the play wherein the direction has the conviction of the playwrighting. If Demon Dreams is to treat human dilemmas of morality, it has also to represent humanity fairly on stage, in all its diversity, regardless of “traditional wisdom.”

Filed under Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net