Local Tibetan actors and musicians plan to claim the spotlight in Minneapolis this weekend to honor their heritage through a “walking play” that explores the life and legacy of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.
One familiar face returning to the play, “The Buddha Prince,” is Tenzin Legden, who first made his debut in the play in 2009 at the age of 12. Now 26 years old and serving in the United States Air Force, Legden shared his insights into the significance of the Dalai Lama’s story and the play’s role in deepening his understanding of his own heritage.
“I want people to learn about his [the Dalai Lama’s] teachings, really,” Legden said. “Little by little, you learn a lot from the show. Even when I first did the show, and even being Tibetan, I didn’t really know a lot about the stuff that went on back then. Seeing a little bit of the play here and there, you just learn a lot. From small scenes and big scenes.”
The production focuses on the formative years of the fourteenth (and current) Dalai Lama, who is also known by the names Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, Tenzin Gyatso, Lhamo Thondup, and Gyalwa Rinpoche. The story traces his journey from childhood in Tibet to his subsequent escape and exile in India.
The Dalai Lama is the highest spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people. He is also the founder of Tibet’s government-in-exile located in Dharamshala, India.
“He represents different things to different people, but a lot of people don’t necessarily know his story, which is unique and amazing,” said Markell Kiefer, creator and director of the play.
The play, produced by TigerLion Arts and the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, will be held outdoors at Washburn Fair Oaks Park, 200 E. 24th St., in Minneapolis. It opens Friday, June 23, and runs every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday until July 9th.
Legden takes on multiple roles in this year’s production. (The play has been previously produced in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the country.) He will play the six-string Tibetan lute and the dramyin, a string instrument. He’ll also play Tibet’s national emblem, the snow lion.
“At first I thought I was just going to play the dramyin,” Legden said. “That’s all I thought I was going to do for the play—just background music. I’m the snow lion now. So, they just throw stuff at you and you just gotta adapt.”
The performance combines mask work, puppetry, and live Tibetan music and dance. It also incorporates select passages from the Dalai Lama’s teachings and his autobiography, “Freedom in Exile.”
The play predominantly features Tibetan youth, aged 13 to 15, as actors and musicians. They diligently rehearsed for the grand opening, meeting four times a week in a school’s basement gymnasium.
An array of props were scattered throughout the gymnasium on a recent rehearsal: A life-size snow lion head hanging from a basketball hoop; a row of yak masks, symbolizing Tibet’s national animal; and a larger-than-life koi fish for a scene where the young Dalai Lama encourages larger fish to protect smaller ones.
A corner of the gymnasium showcased a mix of Tibetan and western musical instruments.
Audience members will actively participate in the production by walking alongside the actors, following them to different locations at the park where the story unfolds.
“When we were thinking about how to portray his life story, one of the really inspiring pieces of what he talks about as a young child is his encounter with animals but also with nature,” Kiefer said “So, it felt like having the play outdoors was really appropriate in terms of telling his life story.”
The journey of Tenzin Gyatso as the fourteenth Dalai Lama began with a series of tests in 1937. Monks presented the young Tenzin Gyatso with several objects, and he correctly identified the belongings of his predecessor, the thirteenth Dalai Lama.
“As a young child, that’s part of how they identify the new incarnation,” Kiefer said. “So, we have larger-than-life objects to portray the whole scene of him choosing.”
While “The Buddha Prince” was initially conceptualized by Kiefer in 2001, it was her collaboration with Tenzin Ngawang, the director of the music and dance, that moved the play forward.
“There was a very early version of it that was kind of a collaboration with the local Tibetan community,” Kiefer said. “Nothing happened with it for a number of years and then we met Tenzin Ngawang in 2005. He really brought the play to life in terms of bringing a more authentic feel of Tibetan music and dance and more traditional costumes.”
Ngawang was born in Dharamshala, India, as an exile, and has taught Tibetan dance and music for the last 13 years in Minnesota, home to the second largest Tibetan population in the United States. He combined Tibetan and English lyrics when creating the music for “The Buddha Prince,” with the goal of preserving the Tibetan language and culture.
“We are living in America, where all the kids are actually speaking in English versus speaking in Tibetan. What I noticed is that we’re losing the language of the Tibetan people,” Ngawang said. “I just get scared of losing the culture and the writings.
“That’s why this play is really important for them to know the story of what the Dalai Lama is saying. He always speaks about compassion… and we need that in the world right now.”
How to see “The Buddha Prince” play
Cost: Tickets start at $25 for adults, but attendees also have the option of paying whatever amount they can afford. Admission is free for children. Buy tickets here. ‘
Location: Washburn Fair Oaks Park, 200 E. 24th St. Minneapolis, MN 55404. The show starts at the corner of 24th Street and 3rd Avenue, and moves between four locations in the park.
Dates and times:
Friday, June 23 at 6 p.m.
Saturday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Sunday, June 25 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Thursday, June 29 at 6 p.m., with a post-show discussion.
Friday, June 30 at 6 p.m., with a Tibetan Midwest performance
Saturday, July 1 at 11 a.m.
Sunday, July 2 at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., with a post-show Tibetan dance workshop
Friday, July 7 at 6 p.m., with a post-show Tibetan dance workshop
Saturday, July 8 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Sunday, July 9 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., with a discussion after the matinee show
Accessibility and preparedness: The event can guarantee wheelchair accessibility if attendees first make an advance reservation noting that they need a golf cart for transportation. Golf carts will be supplied by the play’s producers.
Portable seating will be available to accommodate those in need. Attendees usually sit on the grass and can stand and walk between scene locations. The performers assist in facilitating the audience flow throughout the play.
Attendees are encouraged to come prepared for varying weather conditions and to wear appropriate footwear for walking on dirt paths and grass.
Performances typically proceed rain or shine.
For more information, visit tigerlion.org.
UPDATE: The article has been updated with some new showtimes.