COURTESY OF BRENDA WONG AOKI
Brenda Wong Aoki performs her storytelling pieces with Togi Suenobi, a gagaku master.
Brenda Wong Aoki brings Japanese stories with a personal touch to Hawaii
Japanese folklore and mythology are full of feisty female deities, weeping women and benevolent ghosts. In writer Brenda Wong Aoki's stories, some of those particulars remain the same, but she's inserted elements of her own life story.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Where: Tenney Theatre, St. Andrew's Cathedral, 229 Queen Emma Square
Tickets: $25; $15 for students, military and children
Note: For ages 11 to adult
Call: Honolulu Box Office, 550-8457, or visit honoluluboxoffice.com
» Kauai: 7 p.m. March 22, Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center, $30 ($10 children with purchase of two regular-priced tickets). Call 808-245-2733 or visit gardenislandarts.org.
» Big Island: 7:30 p.m. March 25, University of Hawaii-Hilo theater. Tickets are $15 to $20. Visit uhhtheatre.com.
The American performer/storyteller brings two of her critically acclaimed performance pieces -- the tragic, romantic Japanese tale "Mermaid Meat: The Secret to Immortality" and the Chinese story "Kuan-Yin: Our Lady of Compassion" -- to Hawaii for shows on the Big Island, Kauai and Oahu.
She will be accompanied by husband and composer Mark Izu; taiko drummer Janet Koike; her 12-year-old son, dancer/percussionist Kai Kane Aoki Izu; and gagaku master Togi Suenobu, a descendant of imperial court musicians from the Nara period.
Aoki switches among characters with just a change of clothing and tone of her voice -- she'll talk about the death of her mother and its effect on her son in one story and then move on to a somewhat rueful view of a society obsessed with beauty and youth.
Her method has gone over well, based on past response in Hong Kong to her very personal story, "Kuan-Yin," with its conflicting themes of freedom and uncertainty.
"I was very nervous about how people would react," said Aoki, who premiered the story in 2005. "They were very appreciative of the performance, which was painfully personal; but that's what's so universal. There's art in pain."
Aoki focuses on "people between worlds," in particular the shift from living to the dead, as in "Kuan-Yin," which is set in a retirement home in present-day San Francisco.
In the story, a little boy visits his grandmother, who is sick with cancer and has forgotten his ninth birthday. The piece was written when her own mother was sick, and Aoki was concentrating on helping her father care for her.
COURTESY OF BRENDA WONG AOKI
Suenobi in costume.
During that time, Aoki said, her son asked specific questions about death -- questions Aoki would have preferred to avoid. Instead, she turned to writing, relying on Shinto beliefs to answer her son's questions -- comforting him by relating that deities exist everywhere in nature.
"Everyone wants to know what happens when you die," Aoki said. "Everything has a spirit. There are spirits all around and I'm fascinated by this idea."
Aoki doesn't usually speak of her personal pain, allowing others to interpret her stories for themselves.
On the surface her stories, told in her soft, sweet voice, might be about a young boy who seeks comfort from a dying grandmother, or about a jealous, destructive child envious of a mermaid's romance with a fisherman. But really, the greater picture is about the themes of need and want, as well as compassion, themes often taken from Aoki's experiences growing up in a housing project in Long Beach, Calif.
Aoki is of Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and Irish descent. Her background includes a grandfather who was a founder of Japantown in San Francisco, and a grandmother who was vice president of the first garment union in Chinatown in the 1920s.
Still, she felt more acceptance in the area's Polynesian communities than in the communities of her heritage.
"The Chinese didn't want much to do with us," Aoki said. "The Japanese didn't, either, because we weren't pure. I hung out in the Polynesian projects."
Experiences influence outlook but outlook often influences experiences, and Aoki was moved by the events of 9/11, choosing to move toward a more inclusive worldview.
"There's enough tribalism. There are deep commonalties between people. My projects focus on common ground. The world needs to know compassion and peace, and the deity around the globe that personifies that is Kuan-Yin, though she is known by different names in different countries."
Performing in such places as the Kennedy Center, Whitney Museum of Art and the Apollo Theater, Aoki has won Indie awards for Best Spoken Word Recording of the Year for her stories "The Queen's Garden" and "Dreams and Illusions: Tales of the Pacific Rim." She is noted for her solo work as well as ensemble pieces, and has worked with many of the same performers for more than 20 years.
The two stories she will bring to Hawaii, "Kuan-Yin" and "Mermaid Meat," are a mix of Japanese and Western storytelling styles. Aoki uses body language, music and voice, drawing from Noh theater to tell "Mermaid Meat" and the comedy of Kyogen theater to tell the more uplifting "Kuan-Yin."
Her husband, Izu, whose film scores include the documentary "Days of Waiting," rewrote much of the music of "Kuan-Yin" for the Hawaii presentation, spiking the score with a jazz feel and coaxing melodic sounds out of taiko drums and an upright bass to fit the light mood of the piece.
"To me, music is a story without words," Izu said. "And with taiko drums and the bass, you can do whatever you want. With guitar, bass and drums, there's a preconceived notion."
It was Izu's teacher, Suenobu, who suggested staging the production in Hawaii. This might be one of the last opportunities to hear Suenobu perform.
"Togi Suenobu is such as incredible inspiration in my life. I can't express that enough," said Izu, curator of the Asian American Jazz Festival in San Francisco. "Without his help, the compositions wouldn't sound the same."
Izu and Aoki have collaborated several times over the past 20 years. They plan to record the show in Hilo as part of a series of her stories.
It is director Jael Weisman's goal to make the timeless "Mermaid Meat" and the contemporary "Kuan-Yin" accessible to American audiences.
"I'm giving the stories an American flavor, although they are Asian," Weisman said. The stories won't be made trite for a Western audience. "It won't be precious or 'exotic.'"