One of the hallmarks of Starkville as Mississippi’s College Town is the diversity created in our community through international business partners, and the multi-cultural students and faculty members brought to our area by Mississippi State University. Over the last few years, the Greater Starkville Development Partnership has enjoyed welcoming Japanese-based companies like Yokohama and their executive teams into the Golden Triangle as part of the business community, along with the rich cultural history they bring. Last week, 2nd grade students in the Starkville School District had the opportunity to see a part of that vibrant Japanese culture first hand in the Puppet Arts Theatre production of “The Adventure of Momotaro.”
A community in crisis. A hostile takeover of assets. An emergent team leader. A couple of misfits who must learn to work together. A mission accomplished.
Although it may remind you of the next corporate board meeting on your calendar, it’s actually a nutshell view of “The Adventure of Momotaro,” a traditional Japanese folktale the students of Sudduth Elementary have been studying over the last few weeks. Their studies culminated on Wednesday with a production of the tale by Puppet Arts Theatre, a professional puppeteering tour company. The production was funded locally by Renasant Bank and with grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Japan-America Society of Mississippi and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Puppet Arts Theatre presented two shows on Wednesday, May 6, featuring traditional bunraku Japanese-style rod puppets in scenes punctuated by animated video sequences and original Japanese music. The production was performed by a team of three professional puppeteers in full view of the audience as the story played out in minimal sets.
Sudduth 2nd-graders greeted Puppet Arts Theatre with a hearty “arigato” as the puppeteers took the stage. The folktale is the story of Momotaro, or “peach boy,” an unlikely hero who sprang from a peach as a gift from heaven to a childless elderly couple. The family’s village is besieged by the Oni, demons from the island of Onigashima, who regularly invade and pillage. When he comes of age, Momotaro sets out on a journey to fight the Oni and reclaim his family’s treasured possessions. Along the way, he assembles an odd group of animals who join him as warriors on the mission. Momotaro teaches his fellow warriors the power of getting along as they must work together rather than compete in order to defeat their Oni foes. At the end of the production, students were treated to a closer look at the puppets and how they work from the Puppet Arts team.
“What a great production for our elementary students to view and from their reactions during the show, it is obvious that they enjoyed it very much,” said Tommy Tomlinson, president of Renasant Bank in Starkville. “We were asked by the school district to help sponsor this event, and we were honored to be involved.”
Renasant Bank has sought to be a liaison for the Japanese business community in the Golden Triangle for many years. According to Tomlinson, Renasant is a member of the Mississippi Japan-America Society with several bank officers serving on the Association’s Board.
“One of our bank officers is Japanese American & serves as a liaison for many of the Japanese companies & Japanese families seeking to do business in north Mississippi.”
In preparation for the special production, Sudduth students have spent time in art classes and library visits learning about Japanese culture and the story of Momotaro. Starkville resident, Chieko Iwata, visited Sudduth Library for a day in kimono attire to talk about her culture and read the traditional story of Momotaro to each 2nd grade class.
“Students also had access to library books about Japan, including stories about Japanese children adjusting to American life and books about Japanese language, history, culture and geography,” said Debbie Allen, Sudduth librarian.
In addition, Sudduth art instructor, Amy McReynolds, led students in various projects exploring art in Japanese culture and the influence of Japanese landscapes, particularly the Japanese Water Garden, on important painters like Monet. The students learned about the long partnership between the United States and Japan as symbolized by the nation’s gift of cherry trees planted in Washington, D.C. Students took a virtual gallery walk to see the trees in full bloom.
The Japanese experience at Sudduth over the last few weeks is one way Starkville public schools have engaged students in actively learning about the multi-cultural community that is inherent in a university town.
“Thanks to MSU we are blessed with a multi-cultural society,” Tomlinson said. “Starkville School District wanted to embrace this opportunity, and Renasant was proud to support their efforts to provide everyone, regardless of nationality , with a great educational opportunity.”