While in Hawaii a couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the sold-out production, “A Cage of Fireflies,” at Kumu Kahua Theatre. Written by local playwright Daniel Akiyama, the play takes place entirely within the Honolulu apartment of a pair of elderly Okinawan-American kibei sisters; kibei 帰米, meaning “returned to America,” is a term referring to Japanese- or Okinawan-Americans who were sent to Japan or Okinawa as children, to be raised and educated within the Japanese/Okinawan education system and culture, and who then returned to the United States. These two, along with their third sister who frequently visits, comprise the entire cast. Through mundane conversations about family events and everyday interpersonal frictions, the play addresses themes of tradition and identity – questions of how to live as an Okinawan-American in Hawaii, what constitutes tradition or Okinawan identity, and how to go forward in the everyday, and in the longer term.
Plays having anything to do with Okinawa are so rare, of course I was glad for the opportunity to get to see this one. And I am certainly glad that I did. Though the overall aesthetic, or mood, of the play is dreadfully modern and mundane, in the end, I could not help but find various aspects quite interesting, moving, engaging, and thought-provoking.
I suppose it is both a positive and a negative aspect of this play (and of so much else besides) that it makes me struggle to decide what I think of it. On the one hand, what drew me to Okinawan Studies to begin with was how colorful and upbeat the culture is, how beautiful, exotic and exciting. Okinawa in my mind is blue skies, white clouds, green trees, blue seas, and white sand; it’s lively, upbeat music and culture otherwise which is keenly in tune with up-to-date trends and fashions (e.g. pop/rock music, street fashion, clever t-shirts) while also drawing upon a vibrant tradition. For me, Okinawa is purple (or blue?) headscarves and taiko, red tile roofs and multi-colored bingata fabrics. It is a bright, colorful, culturally vibrant history full of kings and priestesses, envoys and musicians, scholar-bureaucrats, aristocrats, sailors, merchants, warriors and artisans. And, so, it is frustrating for me when time and time again I see Okinawan culture represented through a lens of the melodramatized issues of ordinary, everyday immigrant families, so disconnected from all of that, and so enmeshed in the same limited set of contemporary/modern concerns.
The plot, for the most part, centers on the youngest and eldest sisters, Kimiko and Yukiko, who live together and tailor or repair clothes for the family of the middle sister, Mitsuko. Mitsuko constantly talks of her children and grandchildren for whom these clothes are being sewn, actively engaged in a busy everyday American/Hawaii life full of recitals and soccer practice and the like, while the other two sisters, it seems, scarcely leave the house, let alone engage in much of a social life at all. In fact, these two do not speak English, but only Japanese (all the dialogue in the play is in English, but we are to understand that it is Japanese), and speak frequently of eventually going “back home” to Okinawa, though in truth it’s been many years since they’ve been there.
I am not sure there is much to be said about the sets, props, and costumes, beyond that I was impressed that the taps in the kitchen sink actually worked. In this respect, it seems very much a play in the mode of realism; not trying to do anything innovative or artistic with staging, but rather reproducing realistically, believably, a very plain, typical Honolulu apartment. The acting, however, was not quite so believable. Watching Dian Kobayashi (Kimiko, the youngest sister) and Kat Koshi (Yukiko, the oldest sister), it was hard to forget they were actors, and to think of them as their characters. There were moments, to be sure, but overall, with my sincere apologies for saying so, they felt more scripted, more unnaturally dramatic, than Karen Yamamoto Hackler (Mitsuko, the middle sister), who seemed quite natural throughout the play, and who truly melted into her character. This sort of stilted, dramatic mode of performance can often be extremely appropriate, and effective, when it is a conscious stylistic choice, for a show that is meant to seem unreal, one that is meant to be abstract, allegorical or metaphorical. When I attended a dramatic reading of Ôshiro Tatsuhirô’s The Cocktail Party, this worked fairly well, as each character was clearly meant to be a stand-in, or allegory, for sides in contemporary Okinawan political issues (e.g. the American serviceman, the American civilian, the Okinawan who suffered during the war, the Chinese man who suffered during the war, the Japanese man who was not involved in the war, the Okinawan woman who is too young to have been directly affected by the war). But that was a dramatic reading, and, I assume, an intentional choice of performance style. I doubt that it was a conscious choice here.
A set of kimonos and other textiles, selected or woven himself by Alfred Yama Kina were gorgeous; it is a shame we did not get to see more of them.
Though the mundaneness of the content of the plot really grated on me at first, by the end of the play, we began to see important themes begin to show through. The eldest sister as having her mind situated in a pre-war conception of what Okinawa is like, and her identity very much in belonging to a pre-war or traditional Okinawa, and not in assimilating or adjusting into American life. She holds on strongly to tradition – not to traditions that truly go back to the brightest heights of the Ryukyu Kingdom, but only to the tradition within which she grew up: a very domestic, mundane sort of tradition centered around tailoring clothing and around her experiences as a child in Okinawa. The youngest sister, it emerges, is sort of trapped by this eldest sister, with whom she lives, having never mustered the courage, it would seem, or the independence of thinking, to stand up to her sister and to say or think anything different, nor to act upon that. We don’t really know how long the two have maintained this same routine, day after day, isolated from the world changing and moving forward outside their apartment, but we get the impression it has been forever – and after however many years, only now does she finally start to express that she wants to explore the world outside the apartment, and that she wants to learn English. She represents, I suppose, a portion of Okinawan-American society that is afraid, or hesitant, to move forward, to know how to move forward, to negotiate a new balance of American/Okinawan & traditional/modern identity. And which is controlled, influenced, by the great discursive strength of the community, of their elders, who wield a monopoly on defining proper Okinawan identity and tradition, or at least claim to. Meanwhile, the middle sister, Mitsuko, has moved forward, creating a new version of Okinawan-American identity, still observing various observances, but performing Okinawan identity mainly through social/community events, such as the Okinawa Festival, something that rings of the same kind of energy as Little League soccer practice.
The family has a set of kimono, which crossed the ocean three times, and which serve as a powerful keepsake or heirloom, a symbol of the family’s history. That the eldest sister wishes to keep them in the tansu (chest), “where they belong,” and just keep them there, regardless of whether anyone ever looks at them, let alone wears them, is a subtle, but excellent, symbol of her attitude towards tradition – to just keep it, preserved, static in a set form from a given not-so-distant time in the past. Mitsuko, the middle sister, comments that some families hang their kimono on the wall, on display, celebrating their history and heirlooms, and performing their traditions and identity in that way. When she declares that she has had them chopped up, to make new, modern garments that the family might actually wear, and framed sections which can be hung on the wall, I gasped. And it was in that moment that I realized the greatest strength of the play – it addresses all of these issues, but acknowledges the complexity, the difficulty, and does not shove any one answer down the throats of the audience. Whoever you are, whatever your views on this matter, you can identify with one of the three sisters. And, then, these moments, these questions come up that force you to think about the other side of the issue. Up until that moment where she talks about chopping up the kimono, I found myself mostly siding with Mitsuko against Yukiko’s stale lifestyle. You can practically smell the mothballs, imagine the dusty, stale air. Reminds me of my uncles’ apartment in Brooklyn, where nothing has changed in I don’t know how many decades. But then Mitsuko talks about chopping up the kimono, and I gasped. I have seen some of these garments – blouses, vests, neckties made in part from old kimono – and while it does provide an opportunity for me to get to wear such things and express my Japanese-affiliated interest/connection/identity in a more everyday setting (actually wearing kimono is such a rare occurrence), still, I find myself very much in support of the threatened, endangered, hopefully beginning to revive, kimono industry & kimono culture. I so wish more people in Japan would wear wafuku more often.
I wish we could have plays/productions that were set in historical periods, or which made more use of traditional Okinawan music, dance, and costume, or related otherwise to the history and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom at its height, rather than these endless performances of Okinawan identity as defined by contemporary/modern political or immigrant issues. How wonderful it would be to see an Okinawan play that features Confucian scholar-aristocrats, whether in Ryukyu, in Japan, or in China, or which tells the story of an episode in Okinawan history. The various events surrounding the fall of the kingdom, the arrival of King Shô Tai in Tokyo, and the Ryukyuan royal family taking on the costume and customs of the new “modern” Japanese aristocracy, could make for a great play, to name just one that wouldn’t require too extensively pre-modern sets, props, costumes, etc., and which might not necessarily get into the issue of the language spoken. I appreciate the difficulties of doing a properly traditional-style kumi udui in Hawaii (or anywhere else outside of Japan), but, if we can have Shakespearean-style performances set in any and every historical period, surely, how hard could it be to do something set in a pre-20th century Okinawa?
That said, tired as I am of these modern themes, “A Cage of Fireflies” addresses them well, provoking the audience to think and rethink their attitudes, and their relationship to tradition and identity. It may not draw you into its world the way the greatest theatre does – its world being the very one you’re already in, living in contemporary Hawaii – but it does go beyond its utterly mundane plotline to address much deeper issues and concepts, and to make the viewer think, and in that, it is truly a successful, powerful piece of theatre.