NEW YORK CITY: Call it helicopter parenting or being a tiger mom, but modern-day parents can be borderline obsessed with their offspring. So what would happen if one of their precious children were identified as a reincarnated Buddhist teacher and asked to go to a Tibetan monastery before they’ve even started preschool?
That’s what playwright Sarah Ruhl wants to know. Her latest work, The Oldest Boy, which plays at Lincoln Center Theater through Dec. 28, explores what happens when the son of an American woman and a Tibetan man is discovered to be a Tulku, a reborn Buddhist lama, and the parents must make the decision whether to send their son to Tibet to fulfill his spiritual destiny.
“It’s the first play I wrote since I had twins,” says Ruhl, whose son and daughter are now four (she also has an eight-year-old daughter). “I deal with the question of separation every day. Every day I send my kids to preschool. Every day they take a new leap and do something slightly dangerous, so you’re wrestling with your sense of wanting to protect and keep them and your sense that they need to grow and develop and become their own person.”
Ruhl initially got the idea for The Oldest Boy from her babysitter, who told her a story about a friend of hers whose child was recognized as a reincarnated lama. Though set in the U.S., Ruhl’s drama focuses specifically on Tibet, a culture in exile struggling with the Chinese occupation. More and more non-Tibetans are being identified as Lamas, Ruhl says, and the diversity of cultures and religions in life and onstage fascinates her.
“I was raised Catholic, and my first play was Passion Play,” says Ruhl, who calls herself a student of Buddhism. “I’ve always been interested in ritual onstage—and also just in the tradition of theatre as coming from a sacred place.”