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The transformation from "I knew nothing about Okinawa" to "I just found out something" is very meaningful.”

July 23, 2020

Read the interview in Japanese

Dr. Natsu Onoda Power portrait

Professor, Program in Theater and Performance Studies, Georgetown University

Besides teaching numerous courses at the Department of Theater Performance and having served as the Artistic Director of the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University (2016-2019), Professor Onoda Power has been creating original works of visual theater for DC audiences for fifteen years. Her recent credits include but not limited to Thumbelina (2020, adapter/ director/ illustrator, Imagination Stage, Bethesda, Maryland), The Lathe of Heaven (2018, adapter/ director/ set design, Spooky Action Theater/Georgetown University), The T Party (2016, writer/ director, Forum Theatre, Company One Theatre), Wind Me Up Maria! A Go-go Musical (2016, writer/director, Georgetown University), A Trip to the Moon (2012-2013, writer/ director/ illustrator, Synetic Theatre), Astro Boy and the God of Comics (2014, writer/ director, The Studio Theatre; Company One Theatre) . Prof. Onoda Power holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, and is the author of God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post World War II Manga (The University Press of Mississippi, 2009).

Interview Date: June 12, 2020
Recording Venue: via Zoom
Original Language: Japanese
Interviewer & Transcript: Mitsuyo Sato [MS]
English Translation: Cassidy Charles

Go-Go musical set in Okinawa?

[MS]     Why did you decide to write a play that takes place in Okinawa, though you are not originally from there?

[Onoda Power]     It’s a long story… do you know about go-go music in D.C.?

[MS]    No, I don’t.

[Onoda Power]     You know how different cities are associated with certain music genres — for example, New Orleans has jazz, Chicago has the blues.  D.C. has the go-go. If you heard it, you’d probably recognize it, it’s ubiquitous. It came out of DC’s African American communities, and the drumming pattern is very distinctive, using congas, timbales and ratotoms. You’re thinking that this has nothing to do with Okinawa! You just wait, it’s all going to connect! In any case, I fell in love with the go-go when I moved here. I used to go to go-go clubs with my husband who is also a fan. There’s a band called Rare Essence and a friend of mine, Charles "Shorty Corleone” Garris, is the lead singer. Shorty and I decided to write a musical together in 2016. Then we produced it at Georgetown. To this day, it has been the most meaningful project in my life.

[MS]    What was the title of that project?

People performing on stage

[Onoda Power]     It was called Wind Me Up Maria!: A Go-go Musical. The response was also overwhelming.

[MS]    Oh, really?

[Onoda Power]     About 20 musicians from the go-go community participated in the production, performing side by side with Georgetown students. The African-American musician community and the Georgetown student 

community came together to make this production happen, and I was so proud of that. Shorty and I also became close friends, and we really wanted to create another show together. Wind Me Up Maria could only happen in a university setting because it had a very large cast and a very large band… if we wanted to write a go-go musical that is produce-able at a professional venue, we would have to change our approach. The fact that I am Japanese was also a bit of a problem as well, in terms of potential cultural appropriation. Of course, it would be better for an African-American playwright from D.C. to write a go-go musical. But I think the question isn’t “should I or should I not write a go-go musical?”; a more interesting question is “What kind of go-go musical can I, a Japanese-born playwright living in DC, write?” Then one day, as I was contemplating this, I took an Uber to Howard Theater for a Rare Essence show.

When I got into the Uber — the driver knows your name right? — The driver said “Natsu?” I responded “Yes, I’m Natsu” and got into the car. He asked me “The name Natsu means summer right?” and I asked “How do you know that?” and he said “Because I was stationed in Okinawa.” He was an African-American man, born and raised in D.C. He lived in Okinawa for some years and told me his memories of Okinawa, and how he loved living there. We also talked a little about go-go because he asked what was playing at Howard Theater. When we got there I said goodbye and got out of the car, and suddenly, I thought, “this could be a play!” A D.C. native amateur musician, stationed in Okinawa, starts a band. Perhaps with Okinawan musicians. I told Shorty about it, who got excited. I also happened to be on sabbatical that fall. So, I casually decided to go to Okinawa to research the music scene in October.

Am I oppressed? Or an oppressor?

[MS]    Was that October of last year?

[Onoda Power]     Yes, it was October of last year. At the time I didn’t know anything about Okinawan music so I thought that I would start with the traditional music. I arranged to visit the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts for a week, and planned to check out the Koza music scene. I decided to visit Kin as well, as it is also a place that American and Okinawan cultures collide in a complex way — there is a large Marine Corps base there and it is the site of the incident(1). So, that was the plan.

I went to Okinawa because I wanted to write a go-go musical. But just as I set foot in Okinawa, for some reason I had this inexplicable powerful feeling that I was there to write something else. So on the second or third day in Okinawa, I went to Henoko. It happened to be a holiday and there was no sit-in that day, but the people there talked to me for a long time and gave me a lot of background information. They also suggested that I speak to this man named Douglas Lummis, and gave me his email: he is a marine-veteran-turned-political-scientist, he taught at Tsudajuku University for a long time and is now an active leader of the anti-base movement. He lived close to Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, and agreed to meet with me. Then he said that if I wanted to find out more, I should take the protest charter bus with him from Naha to Henoko. So, that week I took the bus with him to the protest.

Dr Power and her dog on Zoom

The experience was absolutely earth-shattering... I had never heard nor seen anything like that. As a person who grew up on the mainland and now lives in America, my current happiness comes at the expense of the Okinawan people… however indirectly. I was deeply disturbed that it had never occurred to me. I live as a woman of color in the US. I get asked a lot of questions about that. I am often asked, “what is my experience like as a minority woman working in theater?” Here, in this country, I am a minority woman, one who belongs to the category of the “oppressed”. For the first time in my life I realized that, in the context of Okinawa, I am a double oppressor. I had never thought about that. It’s similar to how, in our daily lives in this country, white people rarely have the opportunity to think of themselves as oppressors. Oppressed people constantly feel the effects of oppression, while the oppressors do not. I had only felt the effects of oppression as the “oppressed” but never as the “oppressor,” because that’s how oppression works. I thought it was very important to convey my experience to an American audience, especially now.

[MS]    From D.C.’s go-go music to suddenly setting the play in Okinawa, then things instantly changed again after arriving in Okinawa?

[Onoda Power]     Yes, and it’s really about America, too, which is interesting — though not sure if interesting is the word. There are so many parallels between how Okinawans were colonized and abused by Japan and the US, and how people of color, especially African Americans, have been systematically discriminated against in the US.

Discovering the Okinawa Collection in the Global Resources Center

[MS]    Is that part also in the script?

[Onoda Power]     Yes it is. Except, we don’t even know when the theaters will open again.

[MS]    D.C. does have a lot of theaters doesn’t it.

[Onoda Power]     I had a show that was supposed to open next week, but of course it was cancelled.

[MS]    Which theater was that?

[Onoda Power]     Adventure Theater in Glen Echo. I also opened a show at Imagination Stage in February called Thumbelina, but it had to close. I don’t know what will happen to theaters next season. In July I was supposed to do a workshop for the Okinawa play at the Studio Theater, followed by a student production in March or April at Georgetown.

[MS]    March of next year, right?

[Onoda Power]     Yes, but I don’t know if we will be able to. So right now I am thinking about how to create this project for virtual delivery.

[MS]    I see, will Georgetown University students be performing in it?

[Onoda Power]     Yes, all actors will be students if we do it on campus. After the campus production I will further revise the script for a potential professional production.

[MS]    Have you already written the script?

[Onoda Power]     I haven’t written it yet.

[MS]    It’s just the beginning then?

[Onoda Power]     Yes, I am just starting. I am sure I will be taking advantage of the Okinawa Collection in the Global Resources Center. I had no idea that there was such an amazing resource within walking distance from my house! I think my last visit was on the day before I left for Okinawa in March? I was truly impressed by the extensiveness of your collection, and it’s so great you are always adding new material. It’s very meaningful to have a place like this in DC. I would be spending all my time there, except we are in a pandemic…

[MS]    Thank you. When you visited the Okinawa Collection, you were browsing books on Okinawan music, Okinawan literature and bingata. Are they somewhat related to the story of the script you are going to write?

Cooking Taco Rice onstage

[Onoda Power]     My work is usually non-linear and experimental. I am picturing a number of semi-independent scenes or episodes, 10 scenes for instance… that all have different styles and techniques. But together they tell a complex, multilayered story of Okinawa.

[MS]    For example?

Dish of taco rice

[Onoda Power]     Right now, one scene that I am thinking of, is a cooking show. There’s a dish called taco rice, you know? The scene is about the history of taco rice, told while making taco rice on stage.

[MS]    Really making it on stage?

[Onoda Power]     Yes. Taco Rice rice was invented in Kin, Kin’s population is about 12,000 people, which will be represented by 2 cups of rice. Then, Camp Hansen in town houses 6000 marines, so the performer adds one more cup. It’s a cooking show in which the process of cooking serves as a visual metaphor for the process of history. When you brown the taco meat, the camera will capture the image from above. Lights dim and the actor will be lit by the fire from the stove. It’s meant to represent the Battle of Okinawa.

[MS]    The Battle of Okinawa?

[Onoda Power]     The reason why there are US bases in Okinawa goes back to World War II and the Battle of Okinawa. The meat will be cooked while citing facts about the Battle of Okinawa. It’s a little gruesome, I know. Then the lights would suddenly come back on and it would go back to the cooking show. So, the first episode, Taco Rice Cooking Show. Another episode may be a live broadcast --theatrical performance usually starts at 8PM right? 8pm in DC is 9AM in Okinawa. That’s the exact time the sit-ins start. So, I’m thinking of a live broadcast from Henoko, every performance, from 8 pm to 8:10 pm.

[MS]    Is that one scene?

[Onoda Power]     Yes, that’s one scene. But I realize that this won’t give you a full understanding of the anti-base movement. So I am thinking of another scene, in which the sit-in is represented by two actors and chess pieces. The actors will sit on opposite sides of a chess board, there’s a camera capturing the image from above. Different chess pieces represent the protesters, the security guards, and the police. I have a lot of ideas. Like I said before, each scene has a different style. There may be a couple that are just dialogue. I’ve done a lot of interviews with different people. Ms. Fumiko Shimabukuro, 91-year old woman, told me about her experience during the Battle of Okinawa. For that story, I wondered what if we did it as a kamishibai(2). 

Dr Power and another person

[MS]    Not everything has been thought out but you are in the process of making choices.  What is the intended message throughout all of this?

[Onoda Power]     It’s really not so message-driven, and my goal is not very ambitious. I don’t think many Americans have thought about Okinawa.

[MS]    Are there not playwrights who do?

[Onoda Power]     Not that I know of. I didn’t know of many Americans who even know about the current situation in Okinawa. When I went back to the sit-in in March, I shared the experience with my students on Zoom, and they were really shocked. They were surprised. “What? This is really happening?” “Why does my country have bases in Okinawa?” They didn’t know about these things. “I knew about the base but thought it was, like, one base.” They were shocked to find out that US military bases occupy 10 percent of Okinawa’s land. The transformation from “I knew nothing about it” to “I just found out something” is very meaningful, I think. Putting aside the political stance, pro-base or anti-base... just having the audience know about it, that’s the first goal. The second goal is to invite the audience to reflect on the realization that I mentioned earlier: I am an oppressor, and precisely because of that, I did not feel the effects of oppression before. 

What I want to express through my play

[MS]    Do you express that in your play?

[Onoda Power]     Yes. I have, until now, never written an autobiographical work but regarding this work, I think Natsu Onoda Power may also appear as a character. Maybe not exactly me. Someone...

[MS]    Like you?

[Onoda Power]     Yes, someone “like” me.

[MS]    When you finish your play and open your show, do you have anything you would like to convey to the Okinawan people?

[Onoda Power]     Something I would like to convey...or rather, something I would like for the play to do, is to create more opportunities and exposure for Okinawan artists. I would be very happy if I could play a role in disseminating the works of Okinawan artists and activists to the world, using the resources we have in the US. If there was a demand for more Okinawan stories being told by Okinawan people, that would be great. I happen to be a writer-director working in D.C., so I will use my position in order to tell the story of Okinawa, from my perspective. If people then became interested in the Okinawan people’s works too, that would be amazing.

[MS]    I’m looking forward to it.

[Onoda Power]     Within the 10 episodes there may be conflicting views and opinions. But I am interested in presenting the complexity of present-day Okinawa as is, with all of its entanglements intact. I want to do one scene that compares the 1970 Koza riot, the American protests today, and the 1968 D.C. riots.

[MS]    Because they all have something in common?

[Onoda Power]     Yes. I actually don’t really like the word riot and I want to say rebellion, but, they are all reactions to the history of violence piling up on an oppressed population. Not an isolated reaction to an isolated event. There is the final, last straw, or there was a tipping point therefore it explodes. So all three have things in common.

[MS]    It doesn’t seem like it will be sorted out in 10 scenes!

[Onoda Power]     It probably won’t be completely sorted out in 10 scenes!


Note:

  1. It refers to the 1995 rape incident. An elementary school girl was abducted and raped by three U.S. soldiers who were stationed in Camp Hansen (Kin Town)  (Incidents and Accidents Stemming from the U.S. Military Bases, "What Okinawa Wants You To Understand about the U.S. Military Bases" published in 2018 by Okinawa Prefecture Government. 
  2. Picture story show or paper play. Please refer to the history of kamishibai from Kamishibai for Kids.