Unearthing family skeletons can be a gruesome task, but in the case of stage performer Brenda Wong Aoki, it proved a gratifying one.
Growing up, Aoki sensed the shadow of a secret shame in her family--unspoken and unspeakable. Several years ago, in hopes of finding a clue, she paid a visit to her oldest living relative, Sadae, a 106-year-old cousin in Sacramento.
After lunch, Sadae brought out an old photo album and opened it to a formal studio photograph of a dashing young Japanese man standing next to a white woman in a high-necked Victorian dress. "This is your Grand-Uncle Gunjiro," she said. "That's your Aunt Helen, Uncle Gunjiro's girlfriend."
They were interrupted when another relative came in and, disapprovingly, closed the book.
Aoki was certain there was more to the story--and there was. Much more. She would eventually learn that the 1909 engagement of her uncle Gunjiro Aoki, the son of a Japanese samurai clan, and Helen Gladys Emery, daughter of the archdeacon of Grace Church in San Francisco, triggered a violent storm of racist protest and hostility in the region that resulted in their being driven out of San Francisco and in the changing of marriage laws in California, according to Aoki's research.
The story of her relatives' forbidden love--and its aftermath--has been turned into a one-woman play, "Uncle Gunjiro's Girlfriend," which comes to the Japan America Theater tonight as part of a national tour that will conclude May 25 in Palm Desert.
With rear-screen projections in the background and music provided by Mark Izu, her husband, Aoki assumes the voices of different characters to retell the tale of the tumultuous episode in her family history. Using broad gestures and occasional changes of costume, she moves from past to present and then past again as she takes the audience to a time when interracial marriages were banned.
The eldest child of a Chinese-Spanish-Scottish mother and a Japanese father, Aoki, who is in her 40s, grew up in Long Beach. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 1976 with a degree in community studies, she ended up in the Bay Area mixing community activism with theater and dance work.
"I got into performance for a more philosophical than an aesthetic reason," she says. "I had been very involved in the antiwar movement and the [movement for the] empowerment of people of color in the United States. My background was in community organizing, and at some point I looked around and realized there were lots of people dealing with basic needs, lots of good people, but there was something missing. You need to inspire the soul--and who inspires the soul but preachers and artists?"
In the 1970s and '80s she helped found Dell' Arte Players, Theatre of Yugen and SoundSeen, an Afro-Asian ensemble that "had a short life but was pretty wild, before people were multidisciplinary." All three of the groups toured throughout the U.S. and occasionally abroad. During that time, she discovered kyogen, a classic form of Japanese comedy generally performed as part of a noh theater cycle, and that became a source of inspiration for her technique. Kyogen is highly stylized, with a tendency toward broad physical gestures and expressions--something Aoki uses in her own work today.
"It seemed to me that other Asian American artists were taking Asian American content, but the form was not being changed at all," she says. "We were just performing in a Eurocentric platform--European theater, European dance, European everything. If you're always performing things in a European way, there are probably worlds that are not being addressed. So I got more and more interested in studying Japanese art forms, so I could come up with a uniquely Asian American theatrical form."
In the mid-'80s she found herself reevaluating her career choices. "I'm the oldest daughter in an Asian family--bold, double underline!--the one responsible in the family to take care of Mom and Dad till they die, to take care of Grandma and Grandpa and all my siblings," she says. "I felt I ought to have an occupation that was honorable and to make enough money not only to support myself but my whole family as well." So she turned to law. She applied to and was accepted at Hastings. She made it through one week of classes, then quit.
"In law school, one of the first things they do is to try to divorce you from your emotions," she says, "and after decades of living on my emotions, it was really hard to do."
Abandoning her quest for a future in the legal profession, Aoki went back to performance.
Drawing from her previous experience in theater and her newfound determination, she decided to create her own material and present it in her own way. In 1988, she launched a solo career.
"Some of it is perhaps because I was the eldest child of six kids," she says with a laugh, "and never got enough attention!"
Her first piece was "Obake," based on Japanese ghost stories.