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NOTE ON THEATER

Theater is poetry stretched out in time, the way music is sound extended through forward increments in duration. Theater takes place in time the way a poem might not, embedded in its eternal stasis on a page, coming alive most when read aloud. Theater is ritual acted out loud or silently, spatially static or moving, impelled at variable speeds through time, often creating its own time, in which things do or do not take place (the “plays” of Beckett, the opera Saint François d’Assise of Messiaen). Actors body it forth, personify, animate, amplify, isolate and expand gestures, emotions, exclamations, revelations and silences. But the theater frame accelerates a transformation in its beholders, as a two-way mirror might, in which a narrative reflection, even if surreally disjointed, is cast back to the author and performers on one side, and out to the audience from the other. In the performance the author and actors may become invisible as themselves, to reemerge as weighty phantoms. In the best theater, as in the highest ritual, an ecstatic transference may take place, to open a spectator’s heart. All theater began as visionary ritual.

Blues for ScroogeThe risk is that some of the elements might go amiss, or their radical departure from the “expected” be too much for people, as in the premiere of Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s (those two “skys”) ballet, Le Sacre de Printemps, in which the enraged audience rioted. I experienced this firsthand but with opposite results in High School, a production of Dicken’s Christmas Carol which I rewrote as a free verse text ala Ferlinghetti, Rexroth and Patchen (which I had been listening to on those transparent red Fantasy Label LPs), and called “Blues for Scrooge.” I sat on a stool and read the poem into a microphone, a jazz quartet behind me with music composed by my first saintly genius guru, Gene Gonder, with the student body officers dressed in Kabuki-like costumes doing mime—not an immediate recipe for success in a mixed race high school in 1958 in Oakland, California. But after our 45 minute performance the entire auditorium erupted into cheers, and the students gave us a two-to-three-minute-long standing ovation. What hatched in me was a poetry and (music) theater fire in the belly and heart that has impelled me forward to this day, a mixture of cavalier daring (we were told it would flop and went ahead with it anyway), flinging ourselves into the unknown, and surprise success based on, of all things, “poetry” (though the jazz no doubt increased its allure).

So this, and the gargantuan “Beat” poetry readings in San Francisco in the early 60s, (auditoriums packed to the rafters with people cheering metaphors, meanings, and realized exclamations), and the hallucinogenic Be-Ins in the later 60s (with their multi-media happenings of out-of-body joy), inspired me with theatrical visions. I longed to extend and “broadcast” poetry into the air by way of archetypal figures with Artaudian exclamations, not with his exorcistic “cruelty” as the basis, but with shaman-like heightened Buddhist compassion, since I conceived and still conceive of theater as a ritual for the human tribe to receive metamorphic light through the physical means of rhythmic sound, strong color, choreographed action, and the evocative word—all the vivid resources of poetry extending through time.

The creation of The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company in Berkeley in 1966 was the expression of all these impulses, and this three-year concentration still remains the main fulfillment of my project for ritual theater. It became a community for inner and explosive expression, had a large Berkeley following, and, as all things, reached a lovely zenith and a gradually sliding nadir. Because of changes in me and the bedragglement of the times, after three years The Floating Lotus disbanded, and I returned to my poetry, resulting in one published City Lights book, an anti-Vietnam War Ode to the war-dead, Burnt Heart. Throughout the 1970s I continued doing performances with hand-puppets I’d created years before, improvised with wild Robin Williams-like riffs, accompanied by a flute and fiddle duo, and as a way of making money to travel to Morocco to visit my post Berkeley 60s Sufi Shaykh, Muhammad ibn al-Habib of Fez (may Allah be pleased with him).

The language of The Floating Lotus, though similar in some ways to the published City Lights book of poems, Dawn Visions, was declamatory, mantric, rhetorical, exhortative but positively charged, the unfolding scenes conceived as phases leading to a final apotheosis and chanted calm—a single poetic voice divided into stark representational figures and actively vocalizing chorus. The actors were made to shout out really astoundingly brazen, symbolic liturgies to an often stoned and meditatively receptive audience who, by some accounts, often attended our performances as mass-like religious events.

THE FLOATING LOTUS MAGIC OPERA COMPANY

The Walls are Running Blood, 1967
Bliss Apocalpyse, 1968

After becoming Muslim, theater became basically redundant and even (by some "scholars") taboo, “playacting” a kind of sacrilege, it being hard enough to be real and sincere on the plane of real sincerity without working oneself up into some means of theatrical expression, even with the best of intentions. The Sufic spiritual Path was a divergence from my earlier, self-improvised means of expression, and a deep purification, and a hiatus of about ten years was imposed on me by my teacher, the Moroccan shaykh’s deputy, Abd al-Qadir Sufi (Ian Dallas). Later I began writing again, first an unpublished novel, Ped Xing (at his behest, begun in Nigeria), and then a flood of poems long pent up and bursting, beginning with The Chronicles of Akhira (see Poetry and Publications).

But in the 80s I was asked to write two plays for a girls’ Muslim School in New Mexico, and after some reluctance created scripts I never saw performed except on video, The Stonecutter’s Dream, based on a parable by a Dutch fabulist, whose penname, Multatuli, caught my fancy, and The Setting Free of the Blind Princess of Zar, a spiritual saga imagined from scratch. These and subsequent scripts have been created in a similarly imagistic fashion as those of The Floating Lotus, but often in couplets, with a free, more Ogden Nashian whimsy.

PLAYS FOR DAR AL-ISLAM SCHOOL IN ABIQUIU, NEW MEXICO

The Stonecutter's Dream, 1988
The Setting Free of The Blind Princess of Zar, 1989

In 1990 we moved to Philadelphia, me, wife and two children, and became part of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship. I wrote, directed and occasionally took part in four plays for Bawa’s Annual Anniversary celebration, using adults and children as actors.

BAWA MUHAIYADDEEN FELLOWSHIP PLAYS

Tayyad Sultan, 1994
Mr. Richman and The Shaykh, 1995
The City of Sokku, 1996
Meeting in Mecca, 1997

In the year 2000, I collaborated with the Lotus Music & Dance Studio of New York (headed by a one-time member of The Floating Lotus, now a master of South Indian Dance), writing and performing the poetic narration for a multicultural dance performance of The New York Ramayana.

In 2000, The Floating Lotus Magic Puppet Theater was also created, new hand puppets sculpted, painted and costumed, a stage built and lavish backdrops appliquéd, to present my verse version of the great Sufi story originally by Azerbaijani poet, Nizami, of Layla and Majnun, his longing and her maddening unattainability, presented with simple folk-art effects (with sweet connubial assistance from my wife, Malika).

THE FLOATING LOTUS MAGIC PUPPET THEATER

The Mystical Romance of Layla & Majnun, 2000

In 2001 Lotus Music & Dance also commissioned the scenario, narration and direction for a collaboration between traditional Mohawk and modern dancers for The Eagle Dance: A Tribute to the Mohawk High Steel Workers, whose premiere was postponed by the tragic event of 9/11, but which has often been performed on subsequent dates.

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