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The scars of Hiroshima

Bomb blast victims try to reconstruct their bodies and their lives in Velina Hasu Houston's 'Calling Aphrodite.'

September 05, 2007|Charlotte Stoudt | Special to The Times

In 1955, 25 young women from Hiroshima traveled to New York to receive the most advanced reconstructive surgery available. Known as "Keloid Girls" or "Hiroshima Maidens," these bomb victims were living with horrific scarring and physical disabilities. Some had no eyelids, lips or chins; others had no use of their hands.

"Calling Aphrodite," Velina Hasu Houston's spare, affecting look at these survivors, is premiering at the International City Theatre in Long Beach. The play takes two sisters, the radiant Keiko (Kym Hoy) and tomboyish Shizuko (Vivian Bang), from the rubble of a devastated Japan to the sleek halls of a Manhattan hospital, but ultimately it tells the story of Keiko's internal journey from bitterness to hope.

Director Shashin Desai and set designer Don Llewellyn create an elegant kinetic and visual style that matches Houston's poetic minimalism. As the play begins, a nearly bare stage is adorned with panels of hanging fabric that, in concert with Jeremy Pivnick's lighting, come to suggest everything from a rosy summer sunrise to an ash-clogged holocaust.

What begins as a day of bickering between sisters ends in the unimaginable: A school project puts them virtually at ground zero when the bomb is dropped on Aug. 6, 1945. The severely disfigured girls and their classmates become shamed recluses, living in seclusion, until their plight reaches the attention of a group of American pacifists who arrange for them to come to New York for surgery.

"Aphrodite's" fictionalized Kimura sisters become part of an initiative to restore basic physical function to the bomb victims and reintegrate them into society. While Shizuko chooses to believe in a better future for herself, Keiko refuses to embrace the possibility of change. She has survived by shutting down all feeling; regaining her humanity might destroy her.

Houston wisely focuses on the lives of the two sisters; she avoids the moral issues surrounding the bomb's use and the media circus that ensued when the Hiroshima Maidens came to New York. That these women were first devastated by one form of American technological expertise (the bomb), then offered an olive branch with another (plastic surgery, modernized during World War I) is one of the play's quietly brutal ironies.

Scene by scene, however, "Aphrodite" can feel schematic, as though Houston approached her story with theme more than drama in mind. But the real misstep is the presentation of Aphrodite (Brenda Hattingh), who appears to Keiko at various stages of her struggle. Less powerful goddess than New Age flower child, Hattingh flutters around the stage in a lacy gown, dispensing "wisdom" that comes off as merely portentous. The hospital did have a statue of Aphrodite to which the real survivors were apparently drawn, but Houston hasn't found a theatrically effective way to use this mythological figure.

Despite the play's occasionally stilted tone and some uneven performances, there are moments of wrenching power. Before leaving for the States, the once-exquisite Keiko, shunned in her hometown, catches sight of her former beloved, Sato, on the street. The more she anatomizes his unblemished physical perfection -- and that of the woman he married instead of her -- the more we feel her ferocious self-loathing.

Later, the girls' mentor, Dr. Matsubayashi (Blake Kushi), details Keiko's bomb injuries to American surgeon Dr. Everett (Barry Lynch): Her head fused to one shoulder, the flesh melted together by intense heat. Her nose and hair completely burned away. Her hands are still webbed, the digits fused.

"Oh yes, one more thing," the doctor reports dispassionately. "The bomb's energy was reflected off white clothing and absorbed by dark clothing. Miss Kimura was wearing a kimono with dark flowers on it that day. The print of the kimono's flowers was burned into her flesh."

But like the blooms forever shadowed on her skin, Keiko's soul (intensely conveyed by Hoy's disciplined passion) transfigures the darkest pain into an exquisite beauty. That Houston comes even close to evoking the strength of the extraordinary Hiroshima Maidens is a tribute to the power of "Calling Aphrodite."


'Calling Aphrodite'

Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Sept. 23

Price: $29 to $42

Contact: (562) 436-4610 or

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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