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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

Noh play follows Japanese doctor who witnessed atomic blast


When an atomic bomb exploded in Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 9, 1945, Dr. Takashi Nagai was at the medical college where he was a radiologist. Looking out the window of the concrete building he was in, Dr. Nagai watched his “beloved students” burn to death in a ball of fire. Two days later he found his wife’s body at their home. These deaths were among the 73,884 people killed and 74,909 people injured by the bombing of Nagasaki. Nearly all life within a one-kilometer radius was destroyed.

From the rubble, Dr. Nagai roused himself to form a relief effort. He was able to use his knowledge of radiation sickness to help the injured, but his efforts to seek healing were not restricted to medical care. He built a hut on the site where his house had stood and spent the rest of his life there praying, writing poetry, meeting with visitors and working for peace. Many in Japan consider him a saint and pray that one day he’ll be recognized as one.

Now the story of his life is being dramatized by an American actor who has never set foot in Japan and had never heard of Dr. Nagai until just over a year ago.

In “The Wise Man of Nyokodo,” Casey Groves, 34, intends to mirror on an artistic level what South Africa has done in a concrete way with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Resolution happens in the world, but it has to be real. That’s my challenge,” he said of his play-in-progress.

The initial results of Mr. Groves’ effort will be presented as a free reading at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 9, the 60th anniversary of the bombing, in Synod Hall of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. He is applying for grant money so that he can stage it more widely in this country and, with video translation, in Japan.

Creating a believable play isn’t Mr. Groves’ only challenge. He’s mastering a new form, that of Japanese Noh drama, which integrates highly formalized dances with acting, singing, music and masks. The main character in a Noh play is usually the ghost of a famous figure who returns to a specific location to work out something from his past. For inspiration, Mr. Groves has a picture on his wall of Dr. Nagai in his hut praying the rosary. “When I start to write, I connect to that,” he said.

He began exploring the Noh form last summer by studying at the Noh Training Project in Bloomsburg, Pa. Franciscan Sr. Jeanne Mera, a Japanese friend of Groves’ from the Zen Center at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey, raised the money for that experience, having been the one to encourage Mr. Groves to write about Dr. Nagai.

“It was a very difficult time and he put himself out as a peacemaker,” she said of Dr. Nagai. ”He was worried about children and the future of the world.” Sr. Mera said Dr. Nagai’s work is well known in Japan and hopes Mr. Groves’ play will increase his recognition in America.

Mr. Groves has written, produced and/or starred in several plays with religious themes, including Aldyth Morris’ one-man play “Damien” about the life of Blessed Father Damien, who ministered to lepers on the Hawaiian island Molokai (NCR, Feb. 8, 2002). When writing his Noh play, he drew from Dr. Nagai’s autobiography, The Bells of Nagasaki, and other sources.

In the weeks following the bombing, Dr. Nagai, a devout Catholic, gathered bandages and a ragtag crew of doctors and traveled from village to village, treating people who had fled Nagasaki in droves. Because of his hard work, coupled with the loss of blood he sustained in the bombing, Dr. Nagai finally collapsed into a coma. When he recovered a week later, people called it a miracle. Survivors from the Catholic community -- the bomb had fallen on Nagasaki’s Catholic district and cathedral, which at the time had been the largest Catholic church in the Orient -- gave him money to build his hut, which he called Nyokodo, meaning “as yourself shrine” in reference to the way people had helped him and to the scriptural command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In time people as diverse as the emperor and Helen Keller visited him there. The hut remains as a museum open to the public.

Dr. Nagai died of leukemia, which he had developed from his work before the bombing, in 1953. His final words are reported to have been, “Please pray.”

In Mr. Groves’ play, the ghost of Dr. Nagai returns to the rebuilt cathedral and meets Charles Sweeney, the pilot of the plane that dropped the bomb. Mr. Groves read Mr. Sweeney’s 1997 autobiography, War’s End, and was moved by Mr. Sweeney’s account of talking with a priest about how as a Christian he could justify dropping the bomb. (Mr. Sweeney died in 2004.)

“I couldn’t be peaceful taking just Dr. Nagai’s side,” Mr. Groves said. “I couldn’t look at Mr. Sweeney as a cardboard cutout. I was interested to hear what he had to say. It’s a justification, but there’s a certain truth to it. In revisionist history we make ourselves look contemptible, but we had to use everything in our power to stop this [war]. That’s his point. It’s interesting to look at both sides. That’s how you get to peace. Peace doesn’t come from denying facts. It also doesn’t come from denying someone else’s reality.”

Retta Blaney’s latest book is Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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