On March 30 and 31, 2016 in the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University, Theatre Nohgaku performed the world premiere of Carrie Preston’s Zahdi Dates and Poppies. In an aesthetic conglomeration of noh-inspired content, costume, choreography, and choral accent, Zahdi Dates and Poppies filled the theatre with echoes of violence, pain, beauty, and acceptance. Directed by Jubilith Moore, Preston’s poetic play tells the contemporary story of an Iraqi insurgent who confronts the American Marine who took his life. Although Preston does not consider Zahdi to be a noh play, she draws from the ancient structure of the noh warrior play in which the ghost of a defeated warrior returns to tell a story. Under the musical composition and direction of David Crandall, Zahdi captivated the audience through a stylistic combination of "guttural tsuyogin (dynamic) chant" (source: Playbill) and floating harmonies that seemed to transport spectators to a liminal space between two worlds.
Preston spent several weeks with the cast of Zahdi over the past summer in Amherst workshopping and revising the play, particularly refining the relationship between the husband and wife who reunite after months of separation while he was deployed as a pilot in Zaidon, Iraq. The international, noh-trained group, Theatre Nohgaku, staged Zahdi and made Preston’s play text into something all their own. Preston was very pleased with how Theatre Nohgaku transformed her poetry into the evocative and artistically complex production that graced the Tsai stage. As a poet, Preston drew on her prior training in noh methodology and performance techniques to write Zahdi.
Along with the noh-inspired storyline, Japanese paper flower art fashionably inspired Zahdi’s costuming. The papery white, scarf-like bow of the wife and the angular armor of the husband served as moving canvases for the multitude of shifting lights and colors dancing across the stage. While delicate in design, the costumes mirrored the papier-mâché hanging ornaments that at times seemed like clouds, smoke, countries or continents on a map, or even ever-changing thought-bubbles in the dreams of the wife and ghostly insurgent. Unconventional for the noh stage, the hanging cloud-smoke-bubbles artfully accented the black and red flag pillars, which evoked the traditional four pillars of the noh stage. The overall set design and lighting created a dreamlike atmosphere that took the audience into the minds of troubled wives and soldiers.
Even more eerily dreamlike yet still incredibly captivating was the use of drum calls or kakegoe. These calls functioned as part of the musical and rhythmic atmosphere that seemed to keep everyone on stage together. Many times the drums matched the movement accompanying the song and dance on stage almost in a metronomic fashion. The “yo-ing” and “yeow-ing” of the drum players produced the phantasmagoric sensations of the sufferings of the insurgent, the warrior, and their wives that struck at some of the most painful effects of the violence of war.
Carrie Preston's play, a poetic product of intense discipline and attention to detail, truly reached the core of what violence and death mean for families on either side of war. The peaceful resolution of the play left the audience in great awe of the power of forgiveness and the quiet beauty of hope. Even after the final curtains were drawn, the soldier and wife’s slow march toward an unseen exit both haunted and mesmerized the crowd indefinitely.
By Nicole Rizzo based on an interview with Dr. Carrie Preston
Photographs by and copyright Casey Preston