Student Kabuki theater production continues legacy of Pomona professor’s sharing of centuries-old Japanese cultural art

A Kabuki performer reads off a scroll on stage.
Originating from 1600s Kyoto, Japan, Kabuki theater is a classical Japanese performance style that unites song, dance and acting to tell stories. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

If all the world’s a stage, then a stage should be the world — a world full of heritage keeping history alive. This weekend, KabukiMa is working toward this goal with its production of “Gohiki Kanjincho” (“Great Favorite Subscription List”), a fully staged English-language production of one of Kabuki’s most beloved plays. 

Based at Pomona College, KabukiMa aims to “cultivate an understanding and appreciation of Japanese theatre in the West,” according to its website

On the mainstage at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre, students will perform “Gohiki Kanjincho” at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. An academic symposium on Japanese theater and performance will also accompany the performances. Both the conference and the production are free and accessible to the public. 

Japanese Kabuki theater is a classical Japanese performance style that combines song, dance and acting to create a cultural spectacle of theater. Looking beyond the exaggerated and dynamic movements of this theatrical performance lies a message of how generations carry the knowledge of the past. 

While studying theater in Asia on a Guggenheim Fellowship in the early 1960s, the late Pomona professor Leonard Pronko learned about the Japanese art of Kabuki. In 1970, he became the first non-Japanese person to be accepted into the National Theatre of Japan to study kabuki. Over the years, he directed more than 40 Kabuki-related events, ranging from classic plays to innovative compositions, taking his passion for the art back to Pomona College. 

“Kabuki aims to be as interesting and theatrical as possible,” Pronko explained in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. He pointed out that “ka” means song, “bu” means dance and “ki” means ability in Japanese, but the three words don’t even begin to portray the form’s opulence.

Continuing his legacy, Pronko’s former student Mark Diaz PO ’22 is directing theater troupe KabukiMa’s new play, “Gohiiki Kanjincho.” 

“The way that Kabuki theater is taught is that there is the master actor or artist who has learned it a certain way, and they’ve perfected it. And they pass on that exact style, that exact form, [to] their students,” Diaz said. “That student learns it exactly as the master’s done, they trained in that way for [a long time], and once they themselves feel like they’re kind of at the level that their master is, [they think], ‘Now how do I start bringing myself into this role?’”

A Kabuki performer steps on another Kabuki performer on stage.
“Gohiiki Kanjincho” will play at the Seaver Theatre Main Stage from April 1-3. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

The story of “Gohiiki Kanjincho” follows Benkei and Yoshitsune, the mythical heroes of Japan, as they face off Togashi and Saitoji at the Ataka Barrier. 

“The play is about deception, sacrifice and cunning, and there’s a lot of humor and fun going on,” Diaz said.

Cast member Danny Guo PO ’25 admires the multifaceted expectations and hybrid forms of this theatrical art. 

“It’s a very intriguing experience because it’s my first time seeing any kind of show that combines the theater aspect, musical aspect, the dance aspect — all of them together,” Guo said. “And you sort of see these kind of forms merging in a hybrid form.”

Kabuki theater has multiple parallels to other types of total theaters and is often compared to Shakespearean theater. It encourages an awareness of acting that contrasts with the method acting system proposed by Stanislavski. 

Guo said Kabuki has taught him how to distinguish and differentiate between his actual self and portrayed character.

“The motto for Kabuki actors and actresses is you’re not primarily an actor or actress, and you’re first and foremost yourself,” Guo said. “You maintain a certain balance between the character and yourself, and you’re always aware that you are acting on stage, but as soon as you leave the stage, you leave that world and re-enter reality.”

Classic Kabuki performances combine well-known stories with music, extravagant costumes, strong makeup, sensual connotations, humorous interruptions, acrobatics and stylized movement, particularly dance and mie postures (pronounced mee-yay).

The principal draw of this kind of theater is its cultural richness that compliments its aesthetics, according to Youssef El Mosalami PO ’24, the narrator of the show.

“It’s an incredible show. [It] has so much historical nuance,” El Mosalami said. “There’s honestly so much beauty in each of the costume pieces that we’ve had. There’s so much beauty in each of the lines and translations. This beauty is the history.” 

The cast echoes this excitement. Patrick Lewis PO ’23, who plays a villain, is excited to participate in a world theater.

“This performance is a hyper-stylised art form with a rich cultural history that’s been developed over hundreds of years, and you should come and immerse yourself and enrich yourself in this world of theater,” Lewis said. 

This two-day hybrid international conference features panels and discussions with 18 renowned Japanese artists and scholars and a lecture demonstration on the onnagata by members of the Japanese Dance Troupe Kansuma-kai

“We haven’t had an international theater conference like this in 20 years,” Diaz said. 

Actor Erin Davidson SC ’25 noted the play is unique from all the other productions in which she has participated. 

“It’s been like a long time in the making because we auditioned back in late November! It’s great to see everything come together.” Davidson said. “This experience has been larger than life. It’s unlike any theater experience that you’ve ever had before.”

This might be the last Kabuki show in Claremont, as Diaz was one of the last prodigies of Pronko. Diaz will continue his study of this theatrical art as a passion project, which has been made possible as he has received the Watson fellowship. With this tribute to Pronko’s work, the entire cast celebrates the remembrance of the past as a marker of knowledge.

“The whole mission is to bring attention to a theatrical legacy, which has been a part of Claremont history for so long,” Diaz said.

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