Demons as we know them—from Dante or Leonardo da Vinci, Hollywood or the Bible—usually come with pitchfork in hand, leaping from one fiery pit to the next. They exist underground, far enough away from humanity that we don’t have to think about them until it’s too late. But read as many Japanese folk tales or supernatural stories as playwright Tommy Smith has (by his count, about 600), and you’ll have a whole new idea about devilry.
“A demon, or oni in Japanese folklore, is a human being,” Smith said over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “If you did enough bad things, you start growing a horn and then you just run off into the wilderness and tear your clothes off and wear rags and, like, live in a cave and eat babies. There’s no demon with a pitchfork in Japan.” It’s a more complex view of humans, Smith added, one that’s now the subject of his latest play to open in his native Seattle.
The synopsis of Demon Dreams is too good not to repeat: “In a future where demons rule the earth, three demons and three immortals gather in a broken-down temple to tell stories and spit rhymes about the goodness and wickedness of the human race. Demon Dreams fuses traditional Japanese storytelling with a hip-hop aesthetic to bring you a fast-paced, enchanting allegory about the complexities of human nature.”
Imagine if C. S. Lewis’s morality tale The Screwtape Letters had a dose of hip-hop—how much smoother would the lessons go down? But the Japanese stories that inspired Smith (see also: childhood obsession with anime and love of Akira Kurosawa films) have a murkier definition of good and evil. The immortals in the play—a trio of wizened women—argue on behalf of the now-extinct human race, while the demons pull back the curtain, showing heroes at their worst. Smith doesn’t shy away from tough topics; his last two plays performed in Seattle, Sextet at Washington Ensemble Theatre and White Hot at West of Lenin, had characters who were sadistic and self-loathing by turns, mature theater for mature theatergoers. He also has a self--described affinity for “complicated swearing.” That’s why local audiences might be surprised to hear that a child could watch Demon Dreams.
“It’s purposely written so anyone can enjoy it,” Smith said. “Kind of like a Pixar film, the aggressiveness of the subject is rounded out by the fact that it wants to be an appealing, a more baldly entertaining show than the other two. The Seattle plays happen to be my more aggressive ones. I actually have a kind of side career writing for family theater.”And remember: The demons rap.
Oct 18–Nov 10, West of Lenin, westoflenin.com