Who are we but a sum of the attachments we form on the journey from womb to grave? Folks walk the earth in a wake of leather jackets, tattered bills, boxes of carry-out from Lafayette Coney, lovers, job titles and, a moment before death (so the saying goes), it all flashes before our eyes. Or does it? Perhaps there’s room for awareness even beyond one’s dying breath. Or rather, between one’s last breath … and one’s first.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, composed primarily in the eighth century by Padma Sambhava, is an instruction manual on the art of dying. According to a translation by Robert A.F. Thurman, the book “organizes the experiences of the between — (Tibetan bardo) usually referring to the state between death and rebirth.”
For the next few weeks, local playwright Ron Allen offers up his take on Thurman’s translation with The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Play of Natural Liberation from the Understanding in the Between. This one-act bardo happening probes the consciousness of a dead guy, The Deceased (Nelson Jones), as he prepares for another round on Earth. And true to Allen’s own experience as a practicing Buddhist (he completed the play as part of a class assignment for Stillpoint Buddhist temple) and lifetime resident of Detroit, audience members are treated to a rhythmic flow of language that is both metaphysical and uniquely urban.
The play opens with The Deceased, crucified, toward the back of the stage. Rounded, red ramps and low, red curtains parted at center-stage indicate that we’re not just floating in some bardo void here. We’re hanging out in the womb, waiting to be reborn.
As The Deceased moves to an elevated funeral slab, a stream of characters flows in, signifying the attachments this man has formed in his most recent life and/or serving as guides to his next life. In the former group, we’ve got Phenomena (Amy Arena), the slick embodiment of everything the dead man has sweated after on earth. With her tight, black dress and smoky voice, Arena plays Phenomena as both beautiful and sinister. A can of Milwaukee’s Best in hand, she glides through the bardo, forcing The Deceased to contemplate his unresolved attachments before he can move on.
Helping The Deceased along his way are The Teacher (Thomas DeShazor), The Healer (Michael McGettigan), The Arahat (Kristen Wagner) and several other figures roaming through the between. Lord Yama (Elana Elyce) serves as the judge of the dead and the decider of fate. An Oracle (Sandra Hines), with a radio dial strung on her chest, refers to Lord Yama as “reverend” toward the beginning of the play, and the reference seems fitting. Yama imparts Buddhist-style wisdom (“There is no measure of a man other than speech”), but with a tone that occasionally recalls the pulpit.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead’s examination of Buddhist figures and teachings through an urban lens is intriguing, if not occasionally mind-blowing. Spirituality and rhythm make great dance partners here. The scene where Phenomena and Lord Yama ride to a liquor store inside the womb is priceless, and if you’ve never seen a shaman spit crazy flow, you have to catch actress Wolanda Lewis perform one of Allen’s passages as a one-woman rap about time.
Spirituality and technology also couple up in this work, and The Deceased’s Mind (Doug Bauer) is broadcast on five television screens above the stage.
“I communicate!” The Mind insists, as characters scramble to answer their ringing cell phones (made all the more interesting by the fact that more than one audience member forgot to hit the “off” button and also received an incoming call during the opening night performance).
Allen packs a lot of beauty into an hour, and he does so with text that spans the distance between the cracks in the sidewalk and the stars in the cosmos. A ticket to his spin on The Tibetan Book of the Dead is one attachment that just might be worth holding on to in the upcoming weeks.
That’s not to keep anyone from transcending, mind you. It’s just that you may not catch a play quite like it again in this lifetime. Or the next.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Ron Allen plays through June 21 at the ZeitGeist Gallery and Performance Venue (2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit), Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m. Call 313-965-9192 for reservations.Kari Jones writes about mental and physical happenings for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]