Ancient fable gives a bird's eye view of human disagreement

Presenting 'Conference of the Birds
Pangea World Theater is presenting "Conference of the Birds," a play based on a 12th century Sufi poem.
Courtesy of Meena Natarajan

Public conversations in this political season are often fraught with personal attacks and angry accusations. Pangea World Theater is staging a play it hopes can serve as an antidote to all the negative rhetoric.

"Conference of the Birds" is based on a 12th century work by the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar. Birds of all different types — hawks and herons, nightingales and sparrows — come together and decide they must choose a king to rule them.

Meena Natarajan said that when she and Pangea co-founder Dipankar Mukherjee were looking for a production to mark their 20th anniversary, it seemed like the right time to bring back "Conference of the Birds," the first play they ever produced.

"You know what's happening in the world is incredibly polarizing right now," she said. "And I think there's such an increasing push for homogenization right now, and so it just seemed really relevant for us to do this piece just in terms of just bringing people together, looking at our struggles, and seeing how do we triumph together."

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In the play, one of the birds, an Indian hoopoe, suggests they fly to the land of the mythical Persian bird the Simorgh. But when the others hear how long the journey will be, they falter.

"In the beginning, they're just making excuses — 'my legs are too small for this journey,' 'my wings are too frail,' 'I love my ocean,' 'I love my material life' — whatever it is," Natarajan said. "It's really the quest for a spiritual life that this play's about."

Once the hoopoe has convinced his fellow birds that the journey is worthwhile, their quest begins in earnest. They cross deserts and valleys, sharing stories about love and greed. As the search continues, many birds fall back or die.

"That's when they starting asking, 'why I am here, what am I doing here, what right have I got to even aspire to such a huge goal,' and all the self-doubt that we have as we go through life," Natarajan said.

A journey to find a king
In "Conference of the Birds," the journey of the birds to find their king is interspersed with parables on love and greed.
Courtesy of Meena Natarajan

Natarajan adapted the poem into the play. She said the story holds a mirror up to the audience, encouraging viewers to ask some deep spiritual questions.

Director Dipankar Mukherjee said that just as the birds offer up excuses for why they shouldn't embark on their journey to find a king, so too do we humans come up with reasons we can't change the world for the better.

"Our excuses are, 'I don't have time, my plate is full,'" he said. "And yet we sit in a room and bemoan the achievement gap, war in the world, poverty, patriarchy being rampant. But the point is, nobody will come to solve it unless we solve it! So if your plate is full, get a bigger plate."

Eventually, only 30 birds make it all the way to the Simorgh, whose name, in Persian, translates to "the 30 birds." Ultimately, said Meena Natarajan, the birds find that the spiritual divine — their king — is within them.

"This play actually speaks to the fact that we can all be different," she said. "We come from different places, and yet we can struggle together to reach our goal. Let's surmount all these mountains and valleys to reach the goal to find ourselves."

"Conference of the Birds" runs through April 16 at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis.