Philip Kan Gotanda’s Dream of the North Village

Set model by Andrea Bechert, phoot by Lana Cosic

Scroll this

April 6, 2018

I just had the pleasure of chatting with Philip Kan Gotanda about his play the Dream of Kitamura, which opens on Friday, April 20 at The Zellerbach Playhouse at UC Berkeley. This is the first time in his four years of teaching at Berkeley that Gotanda is doing one of his own plays, and it is the first time he has produced this play in more than thirty years.

Photo by Lana Cosic

“I’ve never written a play like this before or since. It’s based on a very vivid dream,” Gotanda explained as we talked in his office in the Theater, Dance and Performance Studies Department. “My father was an aging lord sitting on throne. I was to his left and my brother was to his right. He would point into the dark and say kitamura and we would point our swords in that direction. My sense was that death was coming for my father.”

I asked what kitamura means, and Gotanda explained that he has only a light grasp of Japanese, but that it could be translated as meaning “north village.”  He explained that he allowed the images of the dream to guide his creation of the play. That openness to the associative logic of the dream world made for a vibrant work that brought Gotanda into contact with many different people.  After collaborating on productions of the play with  David Henry Hwang and Mako , Gotanda was contacted by Jean Erdman of Theater of the Open Eye in New York City.

“Out of the blue she said that she and her husband did work around dreams and they had read the play and wanted to produce it. I didn’t know who (her husband) Joseph Campbell was, so I said we’d have to meet.”

Gotanda and his wife Diane Takei became friends with Erdman and Campbell, produced the play in New York and took the production on the road. Working with Campbell, Gotanda asked him what “north village” means in the context of myth. Campbell said that “bad tidings might come from the north,” a line that Gotanda used in the play. Fans of earlier productions of the play include Governor Jerry Brown and Ray Manzarek, who saw it in LA and then hired Gotanda to write a script for the band X.

“Another guy, Don Ed Hardy, a tattoo artist, he liked it so much he offered me a free tattoo. He did Wim Wenders tattoo. Then he was invited to Japan to do tattoos and in this hotel all the guys were missing a piece of their little finger, they were all yakuza.”

Later Erdman, a former dancer with Martha Graham, invited Gotanda and Takei to watch a film she had created about her life at a private home in Mill Valley. After a difficult search for the house, they found themselves sitting next to Jerry Garcia, watching the film in the home of Bob Weir.

“I put this play away for 30 something years,” says Gotanda. “I thought it would be great to take it out again and see how the play sits in this modern world…with students. We’ve purposely cast it in the most diverse way possible. My other plays are family based and specific to being Asian American. I thought with the dream scape I could cast it this way. We have an Irish national, a Korean, a Shoshone Native American, Guatemalan. A fifty year old formerly homeless white man, who recently produced his own play about life on the streets of LA is in it.”

Working with the dream’s logic, Gotanda found himself drawn to express dramatic action through visual ritual. To that end, he was thrilled to collaborate with choreographer Katie Faulkner (whose recent piece at the Berkeley Dance Project I describe here).

“I always go to the Berkeley Dance Project and I really like Katie’s work. You should always collaborate with people who are better than you. Who can do things you can’t do. Katie has brought that.”

Working with Faulkner and lighting designer Jack Carpenter, Gotanda engages the cast and crew in creating a theater experience that is rich in shadow and light, and full of continuous kinetic energy. The dance and musical references reflect east and west, high and low — gagaku Japanese court music and electric guitar.

“I grew up with exposure to Japanese things, the language itself, Buddhism, tea ceremony, I didn’t know what they were exactly. Later I lived in Japan and studied pottery and I think I got some of that traditional aesthetic in my body….but I don’t try [to do that] I just sort of steal and copy and make a mixture and distortion of the real world.”

As we discuss the plot, I understand why the likes of Erdman and Campbell would be interested. There is clearly a mythic resonance to it.

“The story is how great love kills great love. There was once great love, and the commission of a crime that was committed in secret erodes that love.”

Something rots and something awaits us in the north village. You’ll have to step into the Dream of Kitamura and find there what is familiar and what is new.