The May/June issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine includes a feature by Sara Felder titled “Juggling the Truth: True and Semi-Factual Confessions in Solo Performance.” We’re pleased to present a number of Felder’s interviews with her fellow Bay Area solo performers that went into the article.
Weaving together Japanese Noh and Kyogen theatre with dance and personal life experience, Brenda Wong Aoki is known for her agility across disciplines and cultures. Brenda has written works for symphony, contemporary dance, solo theatre, traditional world dance and Taiko ensemble. Her plays have been produced in the U.S. Japan, China, Singapore, Australia and Austria. Visit brendawongaoki.com.
Brenda Wong Aoki, interviewed over e-mail by Sara Felder, March 9, 2012.
How do you choose the themes for your shows?
My shows seem to hit me over the head and won’t let go until I’ve finished them. For example, when I first moved to San Francisco from L.A., I couldn’t really “be here now” because I felt so much guilt over leaving my people down south. I realized you can take the girl out of the ghetto but you can’t take the ghetto out of the girl. So I wrote “The Queen's Garden,” about the South Pacific street gangs I grew up with in Long Beach. “Uncle Gunjiro's Girlfriend”—the true story of my uncle, a samurai, and the archdeacon's daughter in San Francisco during the Great Earthquake—was about how this first Japanese/Caucasian marriage and the racism around it has impacted my family for the past 100 years.
Sometimes a show will drop in my lap. “Mu,” the show I am writing now with choreographer Kimi Okada and composer Mark Izu, I discovered while on a fellowship in Japan. Scientists recently discovered pyramids just 80 feet below the surface of the water in Okinawa. They believe it may the lost continent of Mu, a prehistoric civilization with colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas. “Mu” will be told through dance. But even though I may understand the subject matter of a play, it takes a long time before I understand the actual story.
Is it important for you whether the shows are based on actual events?
I can only write and perform what for me is the truth. If it is not true to the character then I can’t say it. My body won’t let me. It comes out like a lie! [Laughs.] So yes, it is very important to get to the emotional truth of my characters. Most of my shows are based on actual events and when they are true stories, the audience always wants to know.
I try to remember that life is a treasure hunt. There are jewels all us around every day. As an artist, it is my job to collect them, clean them up and then arrange them for others to appreciate. I believe everyone who comes into my life is there for a reason, even the crazy prophets on Muni, crying out in the wilderness. They teach me about life, give me a character or help me find the purpose of a story. I have been chosen to be a writer and a storyteller during this trip on the planet. It is honorable work and, to me, sacred work. I am here to bear witness, to testify, to tell the truth.
What’s the role of humor in your work?
If you want to be serious then you have to have humor, because you can't dig deep until people open up, and humor shakes things loose.
How do you shape your characters?
I find my characters in my body and voice. I move around my studio talking to myself until my characters come to me. I use my hair as a prop. This began when I was a young actor with no money for props or costumes. All I had was my hair! I still use it. I change characters by wearing it up, down, to the side, in front of my face as a monster or whipping it around like a kabuki lion. I studied Noh and Kyogen with Yuriko Doi and her teacher, Living Treasure Mansaku Nomura. (I was a founding company member of the Theatre of Yugen.) This is where I first began working with archetypal characters and symbolic gestures. I have found this work immensely universal and have used it in workshops with dancers, actors, teachers, social workers and even youth recovering from the rage and sorrow of gang violence. I have learned that words are last. If you can say it in body movement, in tone of voice, in gesture, use those first. They are stronger. I love it that when I perform internationally, and my audiences tell me that even though English is not their first language, they can understand me!
Who is your audience?
My audiences are everybody. Here at Oberlin [College, where Aoki was recently performing], they are college students. I am performing solo here. This year my home season in the San Francisco Bay Area was with Asian Jazz musicians at Yoshi’s, Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz and the San Jose Jazz Festival. The audience was into the music. The work I am creating with Kimi Okada and Mark, “Mu” (working title), will be a contemporary ballet with text and live music and it will premiere in 2013 in San Francisco, the Krannert Center in Illinois and hopefully the Flynn Center in Vermont. That show will be multidisciplinary, intercultural and created for the whole village; we want everyone to find a way to connect to it. “Mu” is about water and we all need water.
Is it important to be witnessed by the audience in your story?
For over 100 years members of my family have lived under a cloud of shame. This shame was so unspeakable that through the generations, we forgot what we had done because no one would talk about it. Yet we continued to feel unworthy, inferior, no good. No one knew the source of this shame until I researched and performed “Uncle “Gunjiro's Girlfriend.” We learned that the secret was really a beautiful love story and the shame was induced by racism sparked by being the first Japanese-Caucasian family in California (circa 1909). I learned that memory (both conscious and unconscious) creates behavior and that—this is the really scary thing—behavior is cellular and unwittingly passed down generation to generation. But I also learned that confessing a secret shame to the public transforms it into a badge of honor. Storytellers are essential to humanity. Change the story; change the trajectory of life. Now my son will not carry on that shame.
What is the value of solo theatre?
The power of solo theatre is the power of storytelling. Storytellers are here to bear witness, to weave the community into a cohesive whole, to remember strategies for living to remind us that we are not alone, darkness doesn’t last forever. In life’s journey, storytellers turn on the porch light.
Sara Felder is a local solo performer. She recently workshopped a new play, “A Queer Divine,” at the Marsh on June 6, and is teaching solo performance at Berkeley Rep this spring. Visit sarafelder.com.