The jisei, or death poem, is a tradition among zen monks and haiku poets – short poems written moments before death. Some are poignant, others surprisingly amusing. All are candid insights into the author’s last thoughts as death approached, regardless of whether or not they welcomed it.
As we walked into the Waterloo Arts gallery for Theater Ninjas’ Black Cat Lost, Obie Award-winner Erin Courtney’s play about death and our personal grappling with it, there was a table of colored paper and white pencils. We were each asked to write our death poem.
After last spring’s The Excavation, the one thing I’ve come to expect when attending a Theater Ninjas show is to be open to the experience. In their show choices and execution, the company, led by Black Cat Lost‘s director Jeremy Paul, is about taking risks. So when the blank cards were staring us in the face, we thought “why not?”
Scott and I each penned our poems privately and made our way to our seats. Sitting down in one of the church pews, I took in the sparse space around us. Sparse but calming. I liked how they framed the empty art studio with a couple of wood-and-paper screens up stage and a window curtain or small vanity mirror here and there. It wasn’t overwhelming – an open space that was clearly designed to allow for a lot of fluid movement. Zen-like.
It managed to lure me into a calm that wouldn’t last for long. Within the first ten minutes of Theatre Ninjas’ performance, I was suckerpunched.
Prior to Black Cat Lost, the Theater Ninjas presented The Refrain, a short, three-person piece about two people discussing a friend who is on her deathbed.
It was about the memories you have of a person who’s vivacious, intense, and alive one moment, and then, suddenly, they’re not. The inclination to gloss over the bad stuff – a friend’s hotheadedness, unpredictability or selfishness. The guilt. Your and your friends’ different capacities for dealing with the loss of someone, especially that first time someone in your age group dies.
The December after I graduated from college, a close friend passed away after his car was struck by a drunk driver. I have no way of describing it except that it was a weird time. I was all over the place – happy when I’d think about my memories of Matt, hollow at other moments, hysterical, angry.
I’m only sharing this to explain why nine years later I found myself quietly ugly-crying at the end of The Refrain. Out of the evening’s two performances, Scott and I agreed afterwards that we preferred this one – the pacing, poetry and performances from Tania Benites, Ray Caspio, and Sarah Moore were ones we understood and connected with.
Fortunately, when the lights went down for a few moments at the end of The Refrain, I was able to regroup before the cast immediately transitioned into Black Cat Lost.
Black Cat Lost is a collage – snippets of poetry, humor, philosophical meditations, dance, and interrupted vignettes between different characters – all about dealing with the loss of others and ourselves. Similar to our relationships with family, friends, and acquaintances, characters pop up, go away, and reappear throughout the performance.
Although Black Cat Lost is disjointed, actors Ray Caspio, Lauren Joy Fraley, and Sarah Moore for the most part make it easy to ride along. Thinking back on their performances, it’s like recalling memories of a series of memories.
After my emotional response to The Refrain, I welcomed Black Cat Lost, which was moving and insightful in its own right but intentionally fleeting. It was a perceptive decision to pair these performances as they uniquely reflected on dying.
As is the case with previous productions, a significant aspect of Theater Ninjas’ work is the nomadic nature of their company. Not having a ‘home theatre’ allows them to use different spaces like the Cleveland Museum of Art and Ohio City Masonic Temple and leverage the space as a character.
Black Cat Lost takes it one step further as the group’s first touring production. Last weekend’s performances were at Waterloo Arts; the Oct. 31-Nov. 4 performances are at 78th Street Studio-Survival Kit; and Nov. 7-9 will be at Summit Artspace in Akron.
This multi-venue approach gives audiences a chance to see how Black Cat Lost transforms in three different worlds. Like each of our journeys toward the inevitable, each weekend’s performance is unique.
On Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, performances start at 8pm. There is a late night show on Nov. 2 at 11pm. Tickets cost $10 on Mondays, $15 on Thursdays, and $20 Fridays and Saturdays. Purchase them at blackcatlost.brownpapertickets.com.
Disclosure: I was invited to attend Black Cat Lost with a guest in exchange for sharing my opinions of the production. As always, my opinions are 100% my own.