Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Philip Kan Gotanda's Ballad of Yachiyo is so full of marvelous sights, sounds, and moments, it seems to dare the audience to find something about it not to like. Impeccably directed by Sharon Ott, it has original music (Dan Kuramoto), puppets (Bruce Schwartz), projections, and a breathtakingly beautiful set (by Loy Arcenas, lighting by Peter Maradudin). The sublime production very nearly distracts us from the play's biggest problem: that the title character is not its most compelling.

Begun as Gotanda's fictional investigation into the life of an aunt who committed suicide at age 17 and whom no one in his family would speak of, the play attempts to re-create the circumstances of her death while chronicling the daily lives of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii in the early part of this century.

It was a troubled world made up of peasants and farmers — represented here by Yachiyo's family and friends — brought in to work the great sugar plantations, and misfits from the upper classes, such as Hiro and Sumiko Takamura (Lane Nishikawa and Emily Kuroda, respectively). But contact with rich whites introduced a new possibility into otherwise preordained lives: Even within the strict confines of the Japanese culture, there existed for the first time the possibility of betterment. In other words, the American Dream.

Yachiyo (Sala Iwamatsu) is the daughter of a poet, Hisao Matsumoto (Sab Shimono), who left Japan at the urging of his ambitious peasant wife, Takayo (Dian Kobayashi). A grand scheme of raising silkworms has long since failed, and Papa, who is too frail to withstand the rigors of the field, has remained unemployed. He stays home, makes traditional dresses for his wife and daughter, and writes poetry while Mama dreams of getting a good husband for Yachiyo.

To this end she packs Yachiyo off to live with the Takamuras. There she will learn the art of pottery by becoming Hiro's apprentice, and the art of the tea ceremony by taking lessons from Sumiko (who is called Okusan). In the process she will lose her supposedly ungainly peasant ways (which are unconvincing at best; as portrayed by Iwamatsu, Yachiyo is the picture of grace) and become a suitable bride for some lucky man.

She's a typically dreamy adolescent girl who is atypically well-educated for her class. She entertains herself by clipping pictures of models from the Montgomery Ward catalog and then pasting new outfits on them. Her greatest ambition is to own a Western dress, and she can't decide if she wants to marry her boyfriend, Willie Higa (Greg Watanabe), who is involved in the island's nascent labor movement.

Arrival at the Takamuras' does two things: It takes Yachiyo away from home, and it shifts the play's focus away from her, for here we meet Hiro, whose play this really is. Tortured artist and disowned son — he took his wife's name at their marriage to ingratiate himself to her wealthy father — Hiro obsesses about the pottery works he is trying to start. He is angry, powerless, and alcoholic. Even the universe seems to mock him: When he stands in the dark of night, wallowing in self-pity, to urinate off the terrace, the stars come out suddenly and brilliantly, reducing his despair to admiration and rekindling his passion for life.

Okusan, Hiro's lonely and unloved wife, welcomes Yachiyo for much-needed companionship, and takes her in wholeheartedly, going so far as to give the girl her most precious possession (whose worth Yachiyo cannot begin to appreciate): a valuable bowl made by Hiro's father. Yachiyo becomes the pawn in the Takamuras' marriage battle. Unsurprisingly, she becomes the artist's muse — which leads, of course, to her tragic death.

Which brings me back to the play's central difficulty. It's the ballad of Yachiyo, but Hiro is the character who captures our attention and upon whose actions the fate of Yachiyo depends. Gotanda gives his heroine poetic language, but it can't begin to compete with his exploration of the pain of the artist: the agony of feeling inadequate to one's task, the misery of isolation, and the impossibility of bringing a great project to fulfillment.

Production values notwithstanding, Ballad only comes alive when Hiro is present. As played by Nishikawa, his passion, shame, and desperate need to produce pottery worthy of his artist father's name burn like an intense flame and quickly reduce all the lovely artifacts of the play to ornamentation. This is in spite of Nishikawa's initial overacting and dialogue that tends to reflect a more stereotypical view of these immigrants. I found the most engaging moments to be when Hiro teaches his apprentice about clay and kilns. The drama achieves clarity, passion, and power in those simple interchanges that propel it forward to its inevitable conclusion. Hiro seems to grow visibly in stature and strength as he falls in love and finds that his artistic gift has been freed. Yachiyo is his ticket to expression, his way out of the black night of creative block. He is the character with clear wants; she is the hapless unfortunate who stumbles into the wrong place at the wrong time.

As Hiro's wife, Okusan, Kuroda provides the perfect balance. Disappointed that her husband has failed to grow to love her, she indulges him in any number of pathetic ways, from tacitly approving his drinking to allowing him the occasional indiscretion with Filipino dance-hall hostesses. Her sense of betrayal at what she supposes to be Yachiyo's pursuit of Hiro is palpable and heartbreaking.

Iwamatsu gives a fresh and sweet performance as Yachiyo, but the playwright has fallen short in his pursuit of the ancestor he wishes to honor. While providing her with poetic monologues, he fails to uncover much about her that is surprising, distinct, or dramatic. Her romantic musings, infatuation, and untimely end seem like well worn cliches. She is an innocent, collateral damage in others' wars.

Likewise, the painfully uncertain existence of the immigrant laborer is given only surface exploration. The play's language is hollow and its diction uneven. Contemporary Americanisms are mixed indiscriminately with archaic language, and the poetic effect is sacrificed more than once for an easy laugh, such as the one Papa earns when dismissing Mama's beliefs as “all crap.”

By using dolls, ghosts, and an eerie structural technique in which key scenes are replayed, Ballad attempts to create the painfully uncertain existence of the immigrant laborer caught between two cultures. But Gotanda seems to have surrendered to the first ideas that came to him: Mama and Papa speak in quasi-pidgin English; Willie joins the labor movement; Hiro drinks to ward off the impotence he feels about his life; and Yachiyo's suicide is because of an illegitimate pregnancy. The predictability of these story choices has the effect of making the play oddly comforting. We've seen much of it before, and so it feels familiar. Catastrophe, which should be looming in a terrifying manner, is reduced to a fairly pedestrian plot development.

I found myself wondering about the title. Why Ballad? I looked up the word and found that a ballad is, variously, a simple song or poem that tells a story, or a sentimental song with a recurring refrain. It seems Gotanda wishes his play to appeal to the mainstream. He might have achieved that more forcefully had he rejected what must seem like the popular demand for clichŽ.

Ballad of Yachiyo runs through Dec. 23 at Berkeley Rep; call (510) 845-4700.

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