August 28th, 2008 | Published in _
Work in Progress Summer 2009
Brenda Wong Aoki completes the trilogy of plays that chronicle her family history and artistic journey with her latest project. “Aoki Mountain” represents the final chapter in the story of her mixed-race Japanese American family and Japanese ancestors. The trilogy goes backwards in time, beginning in Long Beach, California in the 1970’s, continuing back to San Francisco at the time of the Great Earthquake in 1906, and ending (at the beginning) at Aoki Lake in 7th Century Japan.
Aoki describes the journey that brings her to this project as follows:
As a young artist, I was always eager to express my multi-ethnic roots but frustrated by the constraints of European art forms. In the late 70’s I began a seven-year apprenticeship with Yuriko Doi of Theater of Yugen, and through her, I came to study with two Intangible Cultural Properties: Noh Master Nomura Shiro and Kyogen Master Nomura Mansaku. Decades later, my work continues to be enriched by my study of Noh, in which music, dance, and theatre are performed together as equal parts of a whole, and past, present, and future take place simultaneously. The narrator is a critical part of this tradition, and this is how I was led to storytelling and playwriting. In Noh, the narrator’s purpose is to summon the spirits, petition on behalf of the people, and impart strategies for living. This is what I have attempted to do with what I call my Warrior Trilogy.
The trilogy began with “The Queen’s Garden,” a story about a ‘chop suey’ girl (all mixed-up, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Scots) that takes place amidst the polyglot of cultures that make up a small urban island: Westside Barrio Longo, Long Beach. Working on “Queen’s Garden,” I began to think about how the threads of different ancient cultures had found their way to a Southern California barrio.
After “The Queen’s Garden” I began work on “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend,” the true story of my Uncle Gunjiro, son of a Samurai who fell in love with and married Helen Gladys Emery, daughter of the Archdeacon of Grace Cathedral, shortly after the Great Earthquake. This was the second in the series, but at the time I had no idea the work was actually a trilogy.
Throughout the development of Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend, I heard family legends that I explored during visits to Japan. The legends said that my Grandfather and his brothers were truly the last Samurai. Way up in the mountains in Shinano-Ken, where the Yamabushi, (Mountain Priests) practiced magic and the Ninjas trained, the three Aoki brothers were trained illegally as Samurai. A generation earlier, the Samurai system had been abolished and Samurai could no longer carry swords or study martial arts. The Aoki Family were Kakurei Kristians (Hidden Christians), who survived the Christian massacres. They were part Inu, the indigenous people of Japan, and learned to read the future from the Ainu women shamans. The Aoki clan goes all the way back to Kiso Yoshinaka, the very first Shogun. If even some of the family legends are true, then what this trilogy will ultimately say is this: if a ghetto girl from the Western Addition is actually descended from one of the first Shoguns, then everybody is somebody.
During my 2007 residency in Japan, I had reconnected with my teacher, Mansaku Nomura who is now a Living Treasure, visit long-lost Aoki relatives, visited my ancestral home and lived at the foot of Mt. Fuji, the home of a goddess, all of which will have a profound impact on the shape of the new work.