Translation, Hybridity, and ‘The Real Thing’: Don Kenny’s English Kyôgen

Lisa Kuly


Last spring, I gave a lecture on kyôgen to an undergraduate world theatre class for Cornell University’s Department of Theatre, Film, and Dance. After I discussed the activities of Don Kenny, an American who performs kyôgen in English in Japan, I was taken aback by the students’ reaction. They wondered why people would bother to attend performances of kyôgen in English when the ‘real thing’ was readily available. They questioned Mr. Kenny’s motives for taking on such a project, castigating him as just another American intent on Americanising a foreign culture. I was even more confused because they seemed to enjoy the video clip I showed them of me performing kyôgen in English at a recital in Tokyo. Enjoyment aside, for these bright, articulate students, the project of an American translating and performing an ‘ancient’ Japanese theatrical art in Japan was as egregious as McDonald’s setting up shop in Paris.

Confused by their reaction, because in my experience over a twelve-year period performing kyôgen in English with Don Kenny, I found that audiences, foreign and Japanese alike, enjoyed our performances. I did, however, secretly harbour some of the students’ objections and often wondered why the people I performed in front of came to our shows. Was it just an insurmountable language and cultural barrier that Mr. Kenny had managed to overcome that opened up a new cultural experience for foreigners in Japan? But, why did many Japanese come to the shows? In fact, Mr. Kenny’s most loyal fans come from the Cross Cultural Women’s Club of Tokyo, an organisation comprised of Japanese and foreign women. Does English kyôgen simply offer these women an opportunity to engage in an intercultural exchange over an entertaining afternoon of theatre? Or, is there a deeper cultural process at work here?

In this essay, I explore the cultural processes that are triggered by an American performing a traditional Japanese performing art on Japanese soil. I frame the development of Don Kenny’s English kyôgen against the backdrop of the angura movement illustrating how the theatrical activity of that period influenced Mr. Kenny’s work. I do believe Mr. Kenny’s English kyôgen is a product of this vibrant period of Japan’s history.

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