Aisle Seat

Two Wrongs Make the Right
There are two particularly repellent aspects of the resurgence of the right. First is the nostalgia for a time that never was, those glory days when there were no gays or lesbians, people of color worked joyfully as servants or gardeners, and all families were nuclear and happy, happy, happy.

The second and perhaps more horrifying feature is “the new racism.” Often couched in the language of feelings, the new racism invites any me to hate any variety of you. Most appallingly, this new racism is somehow given, if not moral authority, at least a certain moral acceptability: Because they hate us, we are allowed to hate them.

One writer who challenges the dominant culture, with its ideology of racism and hate, and insists that other voices be heard is Philip Kan Gotanda. He is an Asian-American who finds the stories of those hidden from the dominant culture, and tells them with extraordinary skill. His newest play, Ballad of Yachiyo (which opens Wednesday, Nov. 8, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre), was inspired by the true story of Gotanda's aunt. Finding an old photograph of her, Gotanda was able to discover nothing except that, at the age of 17, pregnant and unmarried, she had committed suicide. He decided to imagine a story of her life, and 10 years after finding the photo, he was finally ready for that story to be told onstage.

Gotanda says that all of us “must take time to get to know the other's story. I don't share the dominant culture's worldview, and so I don't view the past through that nostalgic lens. Instead, I choose to write a tragic tale that explores the context of the time, and of people who are caught in an historical moment.”

When I read Yachiyo, I was concerned that this was going to be another play in which a woman can only be the main character because she dies. Gotanda felt a similar concern: “Suicide is the truth of the story, but I did not want to write some sort of beautiful, poetic death, one that romanticizes woman as a victim.”

“I also struggled,” Gotanda says, “with finding a voice for her. How can I as a male find a voice for a 16-year-old girl?” In that struggle, Gotanda found several voices for Yachiyo, each representing a different aspect of her personality. She speaks formally to her parents, pidgin with her friends. In a deliberately risky, but ultimately theatrical choice, Gotanda gives Yachiyo “an internal voice, full and poetic, one that suggests a Yachiyo that might have been, as she might have reflected on her youth.” The result is both theatrical and profoundly political.

By Deborah Peifer

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