Language of Love

A Reading of Philip Kan Gotanda's 'Yohen' Proves to Be a Revelatory Examination of Different Cultures

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Sara Hayden reviews the stage production "Yohen"





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I still love you, but everything you do bugs the hell out of me," snaps Sumi, played by Ayako Nagamine, in the English reading of Philip Kan Gotanda's "Yohen."

Durham Studio Theater is awash in subdued, tranquil black and light

lacings of white. A large black-and white-photograph is projected at the center of it all, featuring a couple with all the glow of newlyweds. Neither person smiles with the mouth, but the joy is evident. They say all that needs to be said with their eyes, as is typical in Asian cultures. Both man and wife are swathed in traditional kimonos; the man, an African American, stands beside his Japanese wife, sitting with the arch of her obi fanning out behind her. The photograph is old, but the affectionate sentiment etched on their faces is timeless. Because "Yohen" is "ultimately a love story," in the words of writer and director Philip Kan Gotanda, the dichromatic color scheme is ironic. Affairs of the human heart, reflecting different shades and points of brilliance, are never conveyed in such simple terms.

However, the stage's simplicity reminded the audience that this is not a play in which actors operate in an artificial world. Instead, this is an English/Japanese bilingual reading shared between people rather than actors, expressing emotion in a new and perhaps deeper mode of communication than a traditional play. It was an experiment, and throughout the performance Gotanda was intensely interested in the audience's reaction. To "intellectually try things, push the borders a bit," he stressed, is a gift in a time when the economy doesn't fund risk-taking arts.

Gotanda asked the audience to accept the improbability of the situation that "Yohen" poses: The characters James and Sumi do not speak the other's language but understand each other perfectly. In the first reading, the actors behind James and Sumi spoke in their native languages to fully exploit different cultural expressions of emotion-David Moore in English and Ayako Nagamine in Japanese. Then they performed the reading once more, this time in English, to tell the story of an African American soldier and a Japanese woman who fall in love in post-WWII Japan. The Durham Studio Theater's performance was a reading of just the second scene. James and Sumi have already passed time as a married couple in the U.S., and this scene demonstrates what the marriage has come to with the boiling of the present culture and their personal differences.

Even though they don't understand each other's language, Moore and Nagamine shared a crackling chemistry, allowing one to believe in the universal language of love. Moore, a UC Berkeley alum who studied theater, gave tenderness to the character of James. Nagamine is a graduate of the Japan's University of the Sacred Heart who specialized in English/American literature. She had never acted before.

Her inexperience as an actress, she explained, endowed honesty to Sumi's reactions. She acted from her experience as a human being, not an actress. Sumi's character underwent an interesting change, which Nagamine insisted was unintentional. Sumi, speaking Japanese, was more reserved with a calculated potency but Sumi, speaking English, was expressed with flamboyance and explosiveness. This calls into question cultural behaviors and how such practices inform personality.

These raw elements, practiced but not wholly trained, effectively peaked in an impassioned torrent onstage. They finally come to understand their relationship, reflected in the metaphor of yohen. During an insightful Q & A session, Gotanda explained that yohen is an art of Japanese ceramics that pass through a series of kilns. Some pots are seen as beautiful and others are deemed unacceptable. A unique pot emerges from the kiln and defies such judgment. Is it beautiful? Ugly? The viewer cannot decide, left wondering about their relationship. Does one remain the same from one country to the next? How does one negotiate such pressures?

"Yohen" demonstrates both the destructive and positive powers of change, assuring us that love flows in one directed energy-beyond political divide, beyond racism, beyond a passionless marriage at its end. Love, true love, is indiscriminate and does not necessarily end when relationships do. It is the gift of one human heart's capacity to another.


Fire up the ol' kiln with Sara at [email protected]



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