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Pauper troupe brings St Francis to the stage

Lives of community founder and St Francis 'very similar'

Pauper troupe brings St Francis to the stage
A scene from the play (photo courtesy of Swaraj Gekien) correspondent, Tokyo

December 2, 2011

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Since June of this year, a play about Saint Francis of Assisi has been performed throughout Japan. Behind the production is a small, Kyoto-based theater group called Swaraj Gekien, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. The play Behold the Birds of the Air: The Story of St. Francis was specially chosen for the occasion. Swaraj is an Indian word meaning “self-governance,” notably used by Mohandas Gandhi in his drive for Indian independence. Swaraj Gekien was formed by former professional actors from among the ranks of a community founded in 1905 called Ittoen, whose members, called donin, take on lives of poverty and mendicancy. Ittoen draws a strong influence from Buddhism, but it is not itself a religious group. It is famous for the community service activities of its donin, who might be found going door-to-door offering help in tasks as unappealing as cleaning toilets. The parallels between the lives of Ittoen’s founder, Tenko Nishida (1872-1968), and St Francis are so numerous that Tenko has been called “The Francis of the East.” He was also a friend of St Maximilian Maria Kolbe while the latter was missioning in Nagasaki. A statue of the Virgin Mary that St Kolbe gave to Tenko is still housed with the Ittoen community today. “I am taken with the fact that Francis was also a ‘prodigal son.’ I don’t want to portray him as just a saint: I want to show his agony,” says Shinji Kimura, a Swaraj Gekien spokesman. The script was written by playwright Akiko Nishida, a sister from the Secular Franciscan Order, under the editorial supervision of Franciscan Father Lucas Horstink. Akiko wrote the script at the behest of Fr Horstink to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan order in 2009. Then, for the next two years, she pressed Swaraj Gekien to perform it. At first, Kimura says he was “very hesitant” about it. But, while thinking about the theatrical program for his group’s 80th anniversary, he started gradually taking a harder look at St Francis, who sought peace, loved nature, and lived in poverty. “It’s a very different work from the plays we usually produce,” Kimura explains, “so it was possible we’d end up with a colossal flop. We’re a small company. But we made the decision when [a certain Catholic priest] urged us on, saying, ‘it’s perfect for you, as you have the same basic psychology’” as St Francis. St. Francis is played by Kimura’s son, while St. Clare of Assisi is played by his son’s wife. As a child, Kimura went to an elementary school run by Ittoen. He remembers seeing a picture book about St. Francis there. He also remembers the day when Tenko talked about him. This month through March next year, Swaraj Gekien will be performing throughout western Japan, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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