DramaWatch: A new stage of “Otherness”

Unit Souzou turns to live streaming to present part of its performance project "The Constant State of Otherness." Plus: what isn't happening in local theater.

It’s lonely out there.

You might have that sense these days merely from looking outside. As Americans and others around the world practice — to unfortunately varying degrees — the newly ascendant and essential principles of social distancing, our streets appear emptier and therefore lonelier, and it’s not a big step to imagine that many folks sheltering in place (odd use of “sheltering,” as though the novel coronavirus were falling like acid rain) alone are sheltered in a lonely place.

Michelle Fujii has a different sense of it. She has long felt the loneliness of the outsider.

Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe, co-directors of Portland-based taiko-theater company Unit Souzou. Photo: Intisar Abioto and New Expressive Works.

An artist who has forged a career out of representations and explorations of her cultural identity, formerly as artistic director of Portland Taiko and for the past several years as co-director of Unit Souzou, Fujii has lately been digging into what her company’s current performance project calls The Constant State of Otherness.

“After 2016, after that Presidential election, I got re-triggered hearing all this divisive rhetoric that put me right back into memories of childhood, that reminded me that I have no way to escape the identity that I live,” Fujii said in a recent phone interview.

Fujii is from Northern California, where you might guess a Japanese-American identity would be so commonplace as to offer some comfort, but that wasn’t the case for her. “I grew up in San Jose, pre-Silicon Valley — a very agricultural community,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until middle school that I had other Asian peers. I had access (to some Asian culture) but it was a once-a-week experience, when I would go to temple and to Japantown in San Jose. And I’m an only child. So it wasn’t just race for me to contend with, it was also family structure.

“It was lonely. That’s part of what’s made me really dedicated to this work, to hear the loneliness people have in feeling like outsiders.”

The work she refers to is the past two years of generating and collecting the material being shaped into The Constant State of Otherness, which draws on taiko, a dramatic Japanese folk drumming tradition, as well as dance, installation art, oral history and devised theater. An important part of the project takes place this weekend, albeit not quite in the originally planned form. Otherness: Togetherness, is a program to showcase some of the work of Unit Souzou’s five-person ensemble and that of its key collaborators, the installation artist Horatio Law and the violinist/looper Joe Kye. But — due to the ongoing global public-health crisis —  instead of three public performances at New Expressive Works, the show will be performed on Saturday evening as the Otherness: Togetherness live stream
“It was going to be a joint concert and a conversation about the work we’ve been doing together,” Fujii says. “(The format) was based on a lot of factors that are not available all of a sudden. As for the live stream, we are not experts, but we’re excited about what this new medium will provide.”

The full production of The Constant State of Otherness is scheduled to debut in Sisters at Caldera’s first-ever Hearth Festival on June 6 and 7, then to have its Portland premiere October 24 – 25 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, presented by Risk Reward. As with any performances for the foreseeable future, those dates are subject to change.

Unit Souzou’s Michelle Fujii continues to hone the booming sound and folkloric spectacle of taiko into a more subtle and personal mode of expression. Photo: Ed Schmidt.

Since she took over leadership of Portland Taiko in 2006, Fujii has been trying to subvert and expand the limits of conventional taiko form, which can be stirring in its ritualistic power but limited in its expressive possibilities. She began to find new avenues — more personal and imagistic — with a multimedia solo show called Choking, which she performed in 2011. A few years later, Fujii and her husband, Toru Watanabe, who trained as an actor in his native Japan, left Portland Taiko to create Unit Souzou. In 2015, working with director Susan Banyas, the couple presented a truly remarkable piece called 88: Hachi Hachi, which, with only drumming, movement and brief snatches of dialogue, conveyed a vivid, complex and affecting portrayal of their romantic/domestic/professional/artistic relationship. Instead of a grandiloquent massed-percussion assault, 88: Hachi Hachi was taiko as subtle musical delicacy and tender interpersonal drama.

According to Fujii, The Constant State of Otherness shares an artistic sensibility with 88: Hachi Hachi, but its perspective is broader. Following the rise of rhetorical nastiness in the Trump era, Fujii began looking for ways to examine her memories of otherness. As she talked with presenters and funders (the project eventually drew five co-commissioning groups: Caldera Arts and Risk/Reward here in Oregon, the Myrna Loy in Helena, Montana, the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia and Dance Place in Washington, D.C.), she created ways to thread the project through Unit Souzou’s various performing and teaching activities. Community workshops and personal interviews around the country bolstered the ensemble members’ own investigations of the theme. 

“I was taking the idea wherever it would flow,” she says of the early parts of conceiving the project. “And as I began to connect with other people and do workshops and things, I found that some of the things I was exploring on a personal basis were resonating more broadly. Listening to communities on this subject has been heartbreaking but also very inspiring.”

In a time when the President of the United States plays sleazy, blame-shifting rhetorical games, pinning the current pandemic on “the Chinese virus,” and such an attitude ripples darkly through our social waters, this seems an especially apt moment to look closely at the constant state of otherness that many people live with.

“It felt important for us to provide some counter-narratives about being Asian in America right now,” Fujii says. “It feels important to do this. Our hearts are bleeding. It hurts to hear this kind of thing, people seeing us not as part of the community but as someone to be blamed.”

Second-hand news

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic and its unfolding implications for cultural groups (as well as for every last one of us on the planet) has been a whirlwind. Those writing about culture have scrambled to report on what’s happening (as in, mostly, what’s not happening), what it might mean for the future, and what to do in this strange and uncomfortable meanwhile. 

In the Seattle area, the pandemic’s presumed American beachhead, the Seattle Times surveyed the (early) damage in a March 12 report headlined “Coronavirus fears hit arts groups hard, even before ban on gatherings.”  And that same day, the New York magazine culture site Vulture published “Arts Organizations Are Heading Into a Crisis. A Few Things Might Mitigate the Disaster.” A week later, those reports might already sound quaintly optimistic.

Taking a longer historical view, the Atlantic published a piece by Linfield College professor (and, we’re proud to say, occasional ArtsWatcher) Daniel Pollack-Pelzner on March 14, the somehow somewhat optimistically titled “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague.”

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t have TV to watch, or to write for. Nowadays, theater is a form that defines itself to a great extent in opposition to screen culture, priding itself on its in-person, in-the-moment essence. But there’s no mystery behind the sudden interest in video technology as a possible lifeline. On March 12, the “theater commons” site HowlRound published “Ways of Gathering in the Age of COVID-19,” a primer on using the platform as “a free and shared resource for live conversations and performances relevant to the world’s performing arts and cultural fields.”

The flattened stage

With enforced time on their hands, some Portland actors have taken to working on their Shakespeare chops. The new video channel Stratford Upon YouTube hardly boasts either an extensive following (your humble DramaWatcher is subscriber No. 13) or an extensive library of clips (just three as of this writing, two featuring Gavin Hoffman, one by Orion Bradshaw). But why not get in on the ground floor, as folks used to say.

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Also, it’s time for some spring cleaning! And so here are the Apple Sisters to remind you that it’s about more than dull old disinfecting:

Just sweep away your worries!

Not Opening

This WAS to have been the weekend to thrill at the arrival of a brand-new theater company in Portland. And if the name The Theatre Company doesn’t reflect a lot of creativity, with the young yet richly experienced theater artists Jen Rowe and Brandon Woolley at the helm, you could rest assured that all that energy saved was going into the inaugural production of The Moors by Jen Silverman. Ah, well…someday.

And this was to have been a weekend for the city to indulge its insatiable appetite for the richly flavored work of August Wilson, whose Seven Guitars was going to be presented by PassinArt. And it was to have featured the return of Love, Shakespeare, a terrific bit of Elizabethan-themed improv by a deft troupe working out of the Curious Comedy Theater Annex. Dammit!
Aaagh! And this was to have been the glorious reunion of Scott Yarbrough and Third Rail Rep, with the company’s founding artistic director back to direct one of its shows for the first time in years, a Nick Payne play called Incognito. OK, now I’m really bummed.

Closing

What hasn’t already?

Best line I read this week

“In improv, as in life, the answer is always ‘Yes, and,’ especially if the question is ‘Are all of your friends looking for reasons they can’t come to your improv show?’”

— from “Encouragement for Struggling Creatives” by Riane Konc, in The New Yorker

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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