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|A CurtainUp Review
The Ballad of Yachiyo
Philip Kan Gotanda's Ballad Of Yachiyo which opened last night at the Public Theater's Martinson Hall is one of the loveliest plays I have seen in a long time. That "lovely" applies on several counts:
The playwright is a gifted story teller with a knack for making a powerful emotional impression by invisibly stitching together a variety of different threads.
The story's framework within the Japanese immigrant community of 1919 Hawaii, transforms the playwright's curiosity about his familial roots into a fascinating history lesson.
Sharon Ott's sensitive and imaginative direction and a fine cast fully support the script which brings me back to "lovely" and its multiple applications in this play which is a feast for both eyes and ears.
To sum up what Ballad Of Yachiyo is all about in a sentence: It's a factually based coming-of-age story about a seventeen year old girl brimful of romantic dreams, set against the background of the turbulence of labor unrest at the plantations where so many Japanese and Philippine immigrants were employed.
To briefly explain the factual origins, Yachiyo was a real person, the oldest sister of Philip Kan Gotanda's father. When her name came up in a conversation with his dad, the older man simply said "she died." But while tragedies like Yachiyo's often remain unspoken family secrets, if a family harbors a playwright in its midst, such ghosts are often brought back from their silent shadow world. And so we have this re-imagined drama of a young girl who cannot speak for herself and her doomed love affair with a talented potter who is driven by personal and artistic demons.
The fictional Yashiyo's (Sala Iwamatsu) emotional journey into adulthood begins with a real journey. Her mother (Dian Kobayashi) pushes her into taking advantage of an opportunity to better herself by going to live with a couple (Emily Kuroda and Francois Chau) in another town, away from her impoverished family and plantation worker boy friend (Greg Watanabe) and fun loving girl friend (Annie Yee). This couple while not wealthy are nevertheless on a higher cultural level.
The threads connecting the lives of all of the play's seven characters are depicted with the same balancing rhythm of the Japanese tea ceremony that figures in several of the scenes that shuttle us between Yashiyo's old and new world. The tapestry of these lives is woven out of numerous episodes. The one-on-one scenes establish the multi-layered relationships -- the Matsumoto family's closeness despite disagreements; the special bond between father (Sab Shimono) and daughter; the tension in the Takamura household that takes a new turn once Yashiyo's fear of the embittered Hiro gives way to passion.
There are also letters read by their writers, scenes played behind a scrim of sliding shoji doors, a series of lecture-monologues about the forming of a perfect pot, (reminiscent of Paula Vogel's clever use of lessons about driving in How I Learned to Drive ). And there are Bruce Schwartz's gorgeous puppets manipulated by a mysterious circle of black clad figures ( J.B. Barricklo, Peggy Cheng and Kim Ima) to create stunningly imaginative fantasias about what is happening and what is preordained. The real love scene that begins at the front of the stage and metamorphoses into a coupling of the puppets behind the scrim is particularly memorable. The puppets and Yashiyo's dream dolls cut from a Montgomery Ward catalogue embody the playwright's easy navigation of the bridge between his forbears perspective and his own as a Japanese-American.
All the actors do credit to their characters, including those with the smaller roles. When Sala Iwamatsu shows Hiro the cut out doll she wants to one day look like she is still a little girl. When she later cries out "I wish it would stop this feeling--I wish it would never end" we see that young girl transformed into a woman. Emily Kuroda is heartbreaking as the unhappy wife who is an older mirror of Yashiyo and Francois Chan gives a powerful reading of the artist who is the play's most conflicted character. Sab Shimono is credible and endearing as a man who has not found his way in the new world to which he emigrated in order to end his snobbish well-to-do family's cruelty to his wife. His eventual reversal of fortune as a writer of romantic letters for illiterate workers provides one of the play's more amusing historic side bars.
Early in the play Papa Matsumo warns Yachiyo "You think you are all grown up. Be careful. The world might believe you." These and other foreshadowings make what will come to pass as predictable and yet new as each new pot coming off the potters wheel or pouring tea during those Japanese tea ceremonies. It's all very sad and real -- and, yes, lovely. This also applies to the designers' contributions.