The performers of GENseng provide unique insight into a neglected chapter of Japanese-American history with a production of "And the Soul Shall Dance" by Wakako Yamauchi.
The play follows two neighboring Japanese-American farming families in California during the Great Depression. Both families dream about returning to Japan someday but struggle with the reality of their situation. While the Muratas come together to overcome their difficulties, the Okas enter a cycle of destruction.
"It's not the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel kind of story," said junior Dominick Ciruzzi, who plays the optimistic father of the Murata family. "It's not sugarcoated at all."
Yamauchi originally wrote "And the Soul Shall Dance" as a semi-autobiographical short story based on her experiences as a second-generation Japanese-American in the California desert. Senior Minji Lee plays Masako, the character based on the playwright herself. Lee said that it was challenging to express herself in a role that was more about observation than speech.
"This was a play that presents an aspect of Japanese-American history that we don't usually see," said director Randy Kaplan, a professor in the school of the arts. "Japanese-Americans had a life before the internment camps. It's a chapter of history that we should know about."
The actors worked with Japanese dialect coaches to accurately capture the varying speech patterns and mannerisms of the characters.
"These characters are at a very odd midway point in the acculturation process," Kaplan said. "They all have different attitudes toward what it means to be American."
Freshman Sandra Lee, who plays Masako's mother Hana, has studied Japanese for four years and said that it was interesting to put it into practice, especially since this is her first theatrical role.
Sophomore Kristal Lee nails her performance as Oka's newly arrived daughter, Kiyoko, shifting believably from a giggly, polite and naïve immigrant to an Americanized young woman over the span of four scenes. Lee said that since it was hard for her to cry on cue, she ate wasabi peas before her more emotional scenes – until she got so used to them that they practically stopped working.
Junior Josephine Lukito plays the even more demanding role of Emiko, Oka's abused second wife. "She's very emotionally charged, very emotionally unstable," Lukito said. "Her mind falls apart." And so, apparently, does her body. Lukito's role is very physical, and she actually broke a toenail during the dress rehearsal. She laughed and said that, in another rehearsal, her stage husband accidentally hit her in the head with a tin box.
Lukito's hard work paid off, though, and she is mesmerizing as Emiko, switching seamlessly from cognizant to trancelike to furious.
Sophomore Michael Hsu, who plays Emiko's abusive husband Oka, said that it was difficult at first to play such a complex and changeable character. "He can seem like a down-to-earth guy until his wife is there," Hsu said.
The set cuts the Black Box Theatre diagonally, with the outside of the Oka household in one corner and the kitchen of the Murata household in the other. The Murata house is open and inviting, with warm-toned set pieces accented by bright yellow lighting. The Oka house is cast in colder blue light and features an imposing façade that conceals the violence within the home.
The intersecting paths that cut between the houses and the audience were partially inspired by the "hanamichi," or "flower road" in Kabuki Theater. Performers would walk on a platform through the audience, allowing viewers to experience the rhythm of the play by constantly turning to watch.
The show will run April 28-29 at 7 p.m. and April 30 at 2 p.m. in the Black Box. Tickets will be sold for $8 at the Brodie Box Office.