Thai puppet company whose proper name is Sakorn Natasin Troupe. Born in Bangkok, Sakorn Yangkiosod (or Yangkhiawsod, 1923-2007) took his Americanized name Joe Louis in the l940s in admiration of the American boxer and named his group, in common parlance, Joe Louis Theatre. He was named a national artist in 1996 and after his death his children, including his son Pisutr Yangkiosod, took over the company. The theatre was located in the Suan Lum Night Market in Bangkok; after it closed the group moved and reopened a new theatre in 2012 giving a daily show. The company’s history clarifies the struggles of a classical style (hun lakon lek) of mixed origins in a society where political forces, commercial viability and continued globalization are at play.
Hun lakon lek derives from the hun krabok (rod puppet), a Chinese influenced tradition, but instead of using one puppeteer per figure, three people are required to dance a single figure. The company crafts exquisite figures of papier-mâché. Iconography is derived from the court rod puppet (hun luang) and mask (khon) theatre. Figures 70 centimetres (3 feet) tall are danced to the taped piphat orchestra. The main puppeteer moves the head and right hand, the second manipulates the left hand, and the third controls the legs. The feet of all the performers dance in the classical style. The puppeteers create the impression of multiple shadows which reinforce and expand the expressiveness of the figure. Minor characters may be manipulated by a single performer. The company has male performers present men, ogres, and monkeys. Women present the female characters. Performances of episodes from the Ramakien, the Thai Ramayana, are most frequent. Sets are painted to resemble Ramakien scenes from temple murals.
The hun lakon lek genre was created in the reign of Rama VI (1910-1925) by Krae Suppawanich, an aristocrat from the Ayutthaya province. He established a troupe in Bangkok to popularize court traditions among the common people. Joe Louis’ parents performed in the troupe of Krae Suppawanich, and Louis learned from them. The National Culture Policy of 1942 banned non-indigenous genres, including all rod puppetry which was labelled as Chinese. This forced the troupe to stop. With the end of the proscription, Joe Louis taught his children the art from l975.
The company caters to both local and tourist audiences. Recent years have brought a decline in audience and the long-term health of the organization remains in question.
- Chandavij, Natthapatra, and Pomporn Pramualratana. Thai Puppets and Khon Masks. Bangkok: River Books, 1998.
- Virulrak, Surapone, and Kathy Foley. “Hun: Thai Doll Puppetry”. Asian Theatre Journal. Vol. XVIII, No. 1. Spring 2001. Special Issue on Puppetry. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2001, pp. 81-86. Issue Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/i247078