Interview by Randy Gener[1]

U.S. playwright Chiori Miyagawa © Photo by Jennifer May
U.S. playwright Chiori Miyagawa
© Photo by Jennifer May

It has been traditional in Miyagawan criticism to state that the Japanese-born Asian American playwright Chiori Miyagawa can’t resist but be poetical. “Ineffably beautiful,” “delicate,” “surprising stage pictures,” “impressionistic”—these encomiums follow her work around like a wet puppy. It is difficult to say if these reviewer adjectives attach themselves to her numinous plays because she is a woman or because she has a Japanese surname or because she often dips into the elegant waters of Japanese literature for inspiration or because the precision of her language usually reveals a dramatic imagination that is interested in irony and paradox. But the frequency by which these adjectives occur suggests that responses to her work continue to be trapped in shorthand and tropes. Sometimes these remarks seem cool and personal; they lazily comment more on the slightly accented woman rather than grapple with the whimsical theatrical adventures she has actually crafted for the stage.

On the other hand, lordly descriptions that position her work as edgy or angry (Miyagawa, one commentator offered, for example, “has been on the razor’s edge of downtown theatre”) wholly miss the point. They seem forced and contrived, although it is very nice of these advocates to want Miyagawa’s work to be better known in the American pantheon. To be edgy or subversive is necessarily to undermine something established. Thing is, Miyagawa’s plays are too deeply felt and too emotionally deep to have as their aim the simple desire to offend an audience or to stick brutality in your face.

Moreover, Miyagawa’s plays, no matter how lyrically charged, are propelled by matters of politics, feminist concerns and social justice. For example. in her 2000 play Awakening, about a young woman caught in the confined of an unsatisfactory marriage (it is based on the Kate Chopin novel The Awakening), Miyagawa evokes and ominously suggests the themes of male dominance and sexual aggression. (The intricate production by director Sonoko Kawahara leans on a gestural vocabulary and sophisticated scenography to express unfettered emotions.) In the startling and very original Woman Killer (inspired by The Woman Killer and The Hell of Oil, a Japanese Bunraku puppet play from 1721 by Monzaemon Chikamatsu), a young man is driven to commit a heinous, senseless murder. Taking the theme of Chikamatsu’s story, Miyagawa’s play leaps forward to 2001 and transports the event to Brooklyn, New York. Fusing a realistic narrative with movement, music and monologues to present varying perspectives, Miyagawa’s clashes of styles compellingly scrutinize the roots of evil and takes stock of the motives behind evil actions.

In other words, Miyagawa is a provocative artificer and not a pulp-fiction rebel. Capricious in structure, political in motivation and artful in construction, her eclectic plays often pore through the wreckages of humanity in search of empathy, feeling and cross-cultural understanding. Especially when her plays grapple with tough subjects—death penalty and social justice in Broken Morning, about the real stories of Texas Death Row inmates and their victims; the tragedy of atomic war in I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour; the struggles of homeless undocumented young immigrants in Winter Captive; the impossibility of escaping drug addiction in Jamaica Avenue—Miyagawa is above all a staunch humanist.

“I believe everything we know about ourselves is entirely based on memory—history, science, art, religion are all constructs of human memory,” she once stated in an interview. “Our existence is that fragile and ephemeral, yet, we all depend on other people’s memory to achieve our immortality: Someone will remember me after I’m gone. There is eternal sadness in the wish to be remembered and this tragedy [and comedy] of living and dying is what attracts me to…living (this word is used the second time in a Zen kind of way and a seeing-the-Grand-Canyon-for- the-first-time kind of way).” [2]

This year marks the publication of two book collections of Chiori Miyagawa’s plays. The seven plays that comprise the first book, entitled Thousand Years Waiting and Other Plays (Seagull Books, http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/T/bo12360757.html), signal the stylistic patterns that recur in her body of work. She often casts her plays multiculturally. Language in her plays are direct, spare, precise, even mundane—while at the same time tinged and loaded with poetic theatricality. “I love beautiful words, odd combinations of words, invented words, imagistic words, revolting words,” she once wrote. “I love language. I love sharing language. Do poets share it ,or do they keep it to themselves? In a play, when part of the dialogue is in a foreign language, I appreciate what those lines communicate by specifically preventing the audience from understanding the meaning.”

The second play collection, America Dreaming and Other Plays (NoPassport Press, http://www.lulu.com/shop/chiori-miyagawa/america-dreaming-and-other-plays/paperback/product-20149144.html), stresses the fluidity of time and space that is the hallmark of her dramaturgy. She likes to warp, layer and mash up realities. She is attracted to whimsical connections and capricious character identities.

The plays in this second collection are, in one way or another, provocative riffs—a tapestry of politically aware immigrant identity that responds to her acknowledgement that she was born in Japan and that she desires to be steeped in its culture and experience, even though she does not identify herself as Japanese and is more accustomed to her wholly New York upbringing.

“I don’t have any sentimental feelings about the place of my birth,” Miyagawa has said.

I love living in NYC. Manhattan is a fantastic sideshow, performed by a huge cast of outsiders. But the road to getting here and joining the troupe was rocky for me. At 15, I had to rebuild myself in the U.S., learn an entirely new culture (an unfathomable one) and a brand new language. I haven’t managed to become quite all-American in my gravelly journey. Instead, I’ve made a bizarre culture of my own, a singular amalgamation of imaginary Japanese sentiments and acquired American beliefs.”

Elsewhere Miyagawa adds, “I gave up my Japanese citizenship finally when [Bill] Clinton was elected, after holding off taking that step for a while. I still have to occasionally defend my ‘American-ness.’ Theater practitioners are by and large a very sophisticated group, and I have never really felt like an outsider. But if I take one step outside theater, distrust/expectation of me being ‘the other’ follows me after decades of being a passport-carrying member of this nation.”

Book cover for “Thousand Years Waiting and Other Plays” by Chiori Miyagawa (Seagull Books)
Book cover for “Thousand Years Waiting and Other Plays” by Chiori Miyagawa (Seagull Books)

Book cover for “America Dreaming and Other Plays” by Chiori Miyagawa (NoPassport Press)
Book cover for “America Dreaming and Other Plays” by Chiori Miyagawa
(NoPassport Press)

RANDY GENER: In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world? or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?

CHIORI MIYAGAWA: I believe that in New York City, just about every topic relevant or irrelevant to just about anyone who lives within what the media considers newsworthy areas of the planet is being written about and presented. I’m not concerned about any major issue being ignored by theater artists.

What distresses me is that I hardly ever see multiracial casting in theater in this beautifully diverse city. Are we supposed to learn from Chekhov’s plays what people might have looked like in nineteenth-century Russia? The essential aspects of his plays have transcended local details already; additional insights can’t be attained by trying to mimic the lost world. The same can be said with most of Shakespeare. We don’t really believe that his poetic and archaic language belongs to only a certain faction of British people. Not many details in his plays are recognizable in our daily lives today, so why shouldn’t they be cast with race-randomness? Considering the demographic of the magical city I live in, I find it frustrating how the stage is dominated by actors from one group.

I was enchanted by Target Margin Theater’s Uncle Vanya, directed by David Herskovits last spring, which did away with conventional interpretations. Yet it was clearly Uncle Vanya, a beloved play by Chekhov, fused with who we are in downtown NYC today. Also last spring, Epic Theater Ensemble’s Macbeth, directed by Ron Russell, was powerful. Both Macbeth and Macduff were African American, as well as over half of the ensemble. I found the tension, both emotional and visual, satisfying.

Is it censorship or a blind spot that actors of color have shockingly slight representation on NYC stages? I think it’s probably both. But it’s a much longer, possibly hazardous conversation for a playwright of color to plunge into.

What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers/directors/actors/playwrights? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?

I believe that the playwright’s input in the manifestation of the whole is beneficial all the way around—artistically and for the health and enjoyment of everyone who is involved in the project.

I am interested in interpretations that counter my text, both in performance and in visual aspects. My new project, I Came to Look for You on Tuesday, is a play about reunions in the aftermaths of natural disasters and war, which will be presented by LaMama ETC in fall 2013. I’ve attended some of the initial meetings about the production and found myself having to explain to potential designers why I don’t want the set to be made of fake debris and wreckages. The play isn’t about disasters; it’s about reunions—something very human. And I think it’s unwise to try to visually represent onstage the images that the audiences already have in their minds derived from photographs or television. There is no way to compete with what the audience brings to the theater. However, countering the text by imagining a beautiful set when much of the play is about losses is not everyone’s instinct.

When I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour was presented at Ohio Theater, no one on the team asked me why there wasn’t a realistic sofa onstage. In this play, a film is being shot in Hiroshima. This film is alternately Alan Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour and a film that was being shot in the actual movie, “a film about peace.” With another set of artists, I could have spent weeks explaining my own brand of magic realism. I need directors, actors, and designers who are willing to leave the reality that appears solid and enter an alternate world.

Good communication with one’s director is critical. The rest should be easy. Overall, I have been extremely fortunate to work with directors who can get on board my train for a curious ride, and who can take me to alluring places I haven’t imagined on my own.

In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?

I don’t enjoy excessive “table work.” My recent plays have so many characters and locations, we really have to get up and read it on our feet to make sense of the world. Separately from the 2014 production of This Lingering Life at Theatre of Yugen, I’m developing the same play in NYC with director David Herskovits. We did a Creativity Fund Workshop at New Dramatists last summer, which was a luxurious five-day exploration of the play. On the first day, David said, “We are not going to talk about it. We’ll jump right in,” and I had such a good time. Questions were asked and discussed along the way, of course, but I appreciated that we didn’t sit around the table. I often feel like a train is stalled when the dead weight of the table is in the middle of the room. Not working in a traditional way can be an awful experience for some actors. I negotiate this by going to directors who understand idiosyncratic puzzles that make my plays.

During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?

Liana Pai and Billy Crudup in “America Dreaming,” written by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Michael Mayer, co-production by Music-Theater Group and Vineyard Theater in New York City (USA), 1995 © Photo by Carol Rosegg
Liana Pai and Billy Crudup in “America Dreaming,” written by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Michael Mayer, co-production by Music-Theater Group and Vineyard Theater in New York City (USA), 1995 © Photo by Carol Rosegg

What springs to my mind is a memory from my first play America Dreaming. Joel de la Fuente was in the cast, and the parents of his then fiancée, now his wife Melissa, came to see it. I thought of my play as a severe criticism of the U.S. collective amnesia of damaging or shameful historical events. Joel told me that Melissa’s parents thought the playwright must have really loved this country. I was surprised by the comment and grateful to their generosity.

Bruce Springsteen says (not to me personally, to millions of people) that his stories/songs are about the distance between the American Dream and the American reality. I like this. I used to think the American Dream was a scam, but it’s more creative to think that it is a reality we could achieve.

I’m almost ready to move away from mourning shortcomings of humanity in my writing to just moving forward. My recent plays have a lot of humor in them, no matter what the subjects are—and the subjects are often seriously political. I’ve yet to meet Melissa’s parents, but I haven’t forgotten what Joel shared with me—and I have thought about their experience of America Dreaming from time to time, trying to decode my own relationship to my adopted country’s history.

You are working with San Francisco–based Theatre of Yugen to develop and present the world premiere of “This Lingering Life.” Conceived as “Eight Noh Plays in Two American Acts,” this new play retells eight ancient Japanese stories. Can you offer something more specific about one or two of the stories in this play, and how they have been transformed by your writing process?

Theatre of Yugen was awarded a 2012 MAP Fund for this play, and the company will produce the play in 2014. We have a while to go, and the process with them hasn’t truly started yet. This company has a very unique way of approaching theater in a manner of the traditional Noh performance, so my play doesn’t fit their usual practice. I think it was part of the attraction for the company members to produce a play in a different form; however, their plan is to explore the original plays as well as my adaptations. It will be a fascinating exercise, and will be challenging for me to reconnect the source plays with my play again by tracing my own steps backward.

The most well-known Noh play I used is called Sumida River by Motomasa (1400-1432). In it, a woman who acts crazy tries to get on a ferry to look for her kidnapped son. When the ferryman lets her aboard, she sees a group of people gathered on a riverbank along the way. The ferry stops, questions are asked, and she finds out that her son is dead and buried there. The son’s sprit comes back and reunites with his mother. The text for each translated Noh play is about three pages.

In my version, the scene takes place in a rural bus depot and the ferryman becomes two backpackers waiting for a bus. There are hungry ghosts, spirits, and dead people in This Lingering Life, but I decided against having a ghost in this particular story, even though the original play is a ghost play. One of the backpackers transforms into her son, and they have an imaginary reunion, but the spell is broken, and in the end, there is no resolution in my retelling of the story. The mother continues to believe that her son was kidnapped despite the fact that a funeral was held for him after he was killed in a car accident. I introduce the woman’s daughter who appears to be a devoted to her mother, but secretly resents her for having to care for her. There is also a suggestion of a class issue—how the mother’s privileged isolation from the working world results in delusion about her son’s death. Everyone leaves my scene still troubled.

Noh plays usually deal with a single event that evokes extreme emotion from a single character. I was interested in playing with the same archetypes, but also in creating surroundings that are inhabited by others who have their own stories and experiences. There are 27 characters in the play, and none of them have names. They are identified by their types, such as Crazy Woman, Mystical Warrior, Woman with Tragic Hair, and Gangster on the Run, in an attempt to create sympathetic characters without making them into our neighbors.

Sue Jean Kim, Joel de la Fuente and Francis Kelly in “I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour,” written by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Jean Wagner, co-produced by Voice & Vision and Crossing Jamaica Avenue at Ohio Theater in New York City (USA), 2009 © Photo by Carol Rosegg
Sue Jean Kim, Joel de la Fuente and Francis Kelly in “I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour,” written by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Jean Wagner, co-produced by Voice & Vision and Crossing Jamaica Avenue at Ohio Theater in New York City (USA), 2009 © Photo by Carol Rosegg
Sue Jean Kim and Francis Kelly in “I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour,” written by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Jean Wagner, co-produced by Voice & Vision and Crossing Jamaica Avenue at Ohio Theater in New York City (USA), 2009 © Photo by Carol Rosegg
Sue Jean Kim and Francis Kelly in “I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour,” written by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Jean Wagner, co-produced by Voice & Vision and Crossing Jamaica Avenue at Ohio Theater in New York City (USA), 2009 © Photo by Carol Rosegg

You recently published two collections of plays: Thousand Years Waiting and Other Plays, which includes seven plays, all of which explore the themes of memory and identity (Thousand Years Waiting and Other Plays, Comet Hunter, Leaving Eden Awakening, FireDance, Broken Morning, and Red Again). And America Dreaming and Other Plays (which includes Jamaica Avenue, Yesterday’s Window, Antigone’s Red, I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour, and America Dreaming). How different are these two collections in terms of theme, writing style, topics, approach? If you think about these two books, do they reveal different identities of yourself as a playwright? (Maybe you can talk about how you have changed as a writer?)

The collection by Seagull Books, Thousand Years Waiting and Other Plays, contains one unproduced play, Comet Hunter, which was the editor Carol Martin’s favorite play, and therefore the key play for the book. She allowed me to choose the other plays, and I decided to include plays that had not been previously published. It is a beautiful book with many photos, but perhaps without an obvious thematic thread. I am glad for each play that is in the book; as a whole, the book may represent my chaotic journey as a writer. My subjects and styles greatly vary from play to play, though underneath all plays are questions about memory and identity. The book is international in nature, which must reflect my interests: the plays span from a thousand years ago in Japan to the nineteenth century England where the first recognized woman astronomer lived, to Chekhov’s Russia, to contemporary NYC, which gets invaded by moments from U.S. history, to the death row in the Huntsville prison, which is based on an actual place, and finally to the underworld encompassing eternity.

The plays in the collection by NoPassport Press, America Dreaming and Other Plays, have all been previously published elsewhere. This book has an accidental thematic cohesion. All the plays have some Japanese influence. Until these plays were collected, I didn’t realize that I had so many plays that had references to Japan in some way. Some are very small—one monologue about the atomic bombing by a ghost in FireDance or a couple of Japanese words in Yesterday’s Window. I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour examines appropriation of sorrow for Hiroshima by the West, and America Dreaming voyages through revisionist U.S. History, and both have Japanese characters. And always, there are questions about memory and identity.

Which of the plays in these two books do you think an international producer should be interested in? Why?

I don’t know. I hope international producers will be interested in any of the plays, but I can’t presume what is relevant in cultures I’m unfamiliar with. I’ve had a few requests for my plays from Iran. I don’t understand why, but I appreciate it. As far as I know, my plays have been translated to Persian, Polish, Japanese and Romanian. I welcome all interests in cultural swaps.

Why are you a playwright (as opposed to being a poet or a novelist)?

By accident. I read Long Day’s Journey into Night as a teenager and was profoundly affected by it, though my journey to becoming a theater artist was muddy and confusing along the way. I’ve had some poems published years ago, and I enjoy prose writing, but theater is a magical place, which can’t be replicated by poems or novels, because those genres never become a “place.” I suppose I love theater because it’s ephemeral and lives in people’s memory and sometimes becomes part of their identities.

Michi Barall and Timothy Altmeyer in “FireDance,” written by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Marya Mazor, produced by Voice & Vision at the Connelly Theater in New York City (USA), 1997 © Photo by Ward Yoshimoto
Michi Barall and Timothy Altmeyer in “FireDance,” written by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Marya Mazor, produced by Voice & Vision at the Connelly Theater in New York City (USA), 1997 © Photo by Ward Yoshimoto
Jennifer Rowe, Maddux and Philip Cuomo in “Yesterday's Window,” a site-specific performance at Lee Kelly’s sculpture entitled “Window to the Gone World,” written by Chiori Miyagawa directed by Amy Gonzalez, produced at West Wind Studio in Portland, Oregon (USA), August, 2011 © Photo by Owen Carey
Jennifer Rowe, Maddux and Philip Cuomo in “Yesterday’s Window,” a site-specific performance at Lee Kelly’s sculpture entitled “Window to the Gone World,” written by Chiori Miyagawa directed by Amy Gonzalez, produced at West Wind Studio in Portland, Oregon (USA), August, 2011 © Photo by Owen Carey

Gener

[1] Randy Gener is the Nathan Award-winning editor, writer and artist in New York City. A contributor to National Public Radio and TDF Stages Online, he is a curator and co-producer of “From the Edge: Performance Design in the Divided States of America,” a theatrical installation of 37 politically committed works by U.S. performance makers and young ensemble theaters which emerged during the dramatic transition in the White House from 2007 to 2011. This exhibition, which originated as the USA National Exposition at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space in the Czech Republic, debuts at LaMaMa La Galleria December 5 to 16, 2012. For his editorial work and critical essays in American Theatre magazine, Gener won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, NLGJA Journalist of the Year Award, the Rube Award for Best Arts Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, among numerous other awards. Gener was most recently honored at Los Angeles City Hall with a 2012 Filipino-American Heritage Achievement Award and a Medal for Arts/Literature and Media from Los Angeles Filipino Association of City Employees. He also received Certificates of Recognition from the City of Los Angeles and the California State Senate, as well as a Commendation from County of Los Angeles. His media project, theaterofOneWorld.org, pursues cultural diplomacy and international arts journalism in the public interest.

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“Underneath All Plays are Questions about Memory and Identity” — Interview with U.S. Playwright Chiori Miyagawa