The question has vexed Michelle Fujii since childhood.
“Where are you from?”
Sounds like a simple question. And for Fujii, who’s been asked it more times than she can count – in schoolrooms, waiting in line at grocery stores, and elsewhere – it had a simple answer. “San Jose,” she’d say when she was growing up in California. “Portland,” she’s said for the past 17 years.
But usually, people would keep asking, “You know. Where are you really from?“ And Fujii, a fourth-generation Japanese American, realized early on that the answer wasn’t that simple.
“You quickly understand that it’s not really about where am I from, but where are you really from, which implies that you don’t belong here,” she says. For many people of color, that question is part of “a lifetime of not belonging.”
Fujii and the six-member ensemble she directs, Unit Souzou, explore those feelings of isolation, displacement, of not belonging, in “Constant State of Otherness”, May 20-21 as part of Portland’s Risk/Reward Festival, and June 10-12 at Sisters’ Caldera Arts Center. Originally planned for a 2020 performance, it has only become more relevant two years on.
Fujii initially conceived the work as a solo vehicle, but soon decided to bring it to Unit Souzou, which uses taiko drumming and Japanese folk dance as primary elements in its singular combinations of theater, music, and dance. The name can be written in Japanese as either “imagination,” “creativity”, or “noisy.” She also decided to expand the work to include stories of other Asian Americans around the country. In workshops and storytelling sessions at public libraries, the creative team interviewed a wide range of subjects in Portland, Sisters, Philadelphia, and Helena. (Marty Hughley’s 2020 ArtsWatch story provides excellent background on Unit Souzou, the origins of the Otherness project, and Fujii’s artistic journey.) Just days before the show was scheduled to premiere in March 2020, pandemic precautions forced the shutdown of its venue. They quickly became one of the first Portland performing arts groups to pivot to video, live-streaming excerpts of the show alongside works by other artist collaborators.
Around the same time, Fujii began hearing from other Asian American artists around the country about surging incidents of racial hostility and even violence, many ascribed to fear and political rabble rousing, including the then-President’s use of racist terms like “the China virus.” Racist extremists began blaming Asian Americans who had nothing to do with China for what they called “kung flu.”
“It wasn’t new,” she told Dmae Roberts in ArtsWatch’s Stage & Studio podcast last week about the wave of anti-Asian violence. “It just continued to get more and more blatant.”
The ensemble realized that as the consequences of otherness intensified, the show would have to respond. “It felt important for us to provide some counter-narratives about being Asian in America right now,” Fujii told Hughley then. “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.”
Over the next year, they continued collecting stories and meeting up via online platforms, steeping themselves in stories, translating the emotions into movement, and practicing rhythmic dance moves even though separated by safety considerations. They also incorporated video and audio from the interviews and storytelling sessions they’d conducted in Helena, Portland, Philadelphia, and Sisters.
“The interviews broke our hearts,” she remembered. “One of the many things we heard over and over again was how much loneliness was affecting youth. These systems of otherness affected their identity, what they could say, even how they thought about who they really are.”
This spring, they blended the older and new material into a new show. “Over the past two years, otherness got more and more in our faces, and more brutally,” Fujii says. “So as an ensemble, we kept developing more and more content. What started to emerge was more centralized in ‘I’ stories” – direct expression of personal feelings of loneliness and alienation.
Nor have the tensions abated, as last weekend’s Oregon Rises Above Hate march in downtown Portland demonstrated. The timing parallels the course of Damien Geter’s similarly pandemic-postponed African American Requiem, whose originally scheduled appearance would have coincided with the racial justice protests that followed a white police officer’s murder of George Floyd. In both cases, prescient artists were tapping into deep social pathologies that set the stage for the violence that followed.
From Stories to Stages
Constant State of Otherness explores otherness from four perspectives. The first, “Ancestral Survival,” draws on stories from ensemble members, their parents, grandparents, and from history. The second chapter, “Belonging”, is “the most personal to me,” Fujii says, drawing on her childhood memories of hearing “Asian, go back home. You don’t belong here.”
The third chapter, “Power and Control,” places these personal experiences in the context of larger historical narratives. “We talk about complicity and conformity, all of us buying into the systemic ways in which othering continues to happen,” she explains.
In the concluding and most hopeful installment, “Both/And World,” Fujii says, “we start imagining beyond binaries, through stories and songs and music that get beyond the categorizing and all the ways in which we build a divide between us. It has different kinds of rhythmic codes, trying to bring out compassion to the world, and to defy loneliness.”
The show presents the themes not as documentary, but rather transmuted into Souzou’s characteristically intense, sometimes combustible fusion of dazzling dancing and drumming, movement (choreographed by Souzou co-founder and charismatic lead dancer Toru Watanabe) and music (most composed by ensemble member David Wells and including songs and flute). Words are sometimes projected on screen, sometimes sounding over speakers, sometimes poetic, sometimes spilling out in disconnected phrases. Designer Horatio Law created five “sanctuary circles” extending beyond the stage, where audience members can hear audio excerpts from the interviews. In a rousing finale, Watanabe assumes the role of lead singer, accompanied by a band of taiko drummers. He based the lyrics of one song on Fujii’s experiences of recurrent anti-Asian racism, “running around in circles till I collapse,” she told Roberts.
After the Portland show, next month’s three-day appearance at Caldera’s inaugural annual Hearth Festival appearance will be “completely reimagined,” Fujii says, with a festival-like outdoor setting and site-specific performances of Otherness stories appropriate to the 119-acre space, which is really where the project began. Some of the stories came from Caldera students and community members.
They’ll present the full show indoors on Friday night, June 10 and Sunday afternoon, June 12. On June 11, Saturday’s festival program includes a facilitated walking meditation with Souzou that reaches Blue Lake, a drum workshop, and family friendly workshops. (Fujii and Watanabe also teach in public schools, and Souzou has its own teaching and youth programs, including working with Young Audiences and its Right Brain Initiative.)
Appearing now, during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the show seems as timely as it would have been two years ago. But othering is, alas, not confined to Asian Americans. Fujii recalls talking to an African American woman after the tour’s first performance in Helena. The performance resonated with her, as she’d encountered similar questions and harassment as a woman of color in an overwhelmingly white place. Seeing the performance made her feel less isolated, she told Fujii, knowing that others shared such experiences and emotions.
Fujii thinks it also speaks to those who don’t define themselves as “other,” even members of the dominant culture.
“We need to get beyond the comfort of seeing ourselves continuously reflected in those around us,” she explains. “What do we learn, how do we grow from witnessing and hearing from others?”
Focused on artistically expressing the experiences of Americans who’ve made to feel as though they’re strangers in their own homelands, the show doesn’t try to answer all the urgent questions raised by centuries of “othering,” or even those posed by the last two years of increasing racial hostility. It doesn’t even definitively answer that perennial question that has haunted Fujii and so many others throughout their lives: “Where are you from?”
“I don’t know if I can ever escape this question in my lifetime,” Fujii says. “But at least this show means I don’t have to just take it. Historically, otherness is used to divide, to reduce access, to make someone feel shame, to make someone lose power. Our hope is that everyone does feel otherness exists within them, and that people will see difference as strength instead of what we’re doing now.”
Unit Souzou’s Constant State of Otherness happens Friday, May 20 at 7:30pm and Saturday, May 21 at 2:00pm & 7:30pm, at Portland Opera, 211 SE Caruthers St, Portland, as part of Portland’s Risk/Reward Festival. Tickets.
The show repeats June 10 and 12 for limited, in-person audiences at Caldera Arts Center’s Hearth Festival in Sisters. On Saturday, June 11, the ensemble will share Otherness Stories at four site-specific performances spaced out over the course of the day in various locations at Caldera. Listen to Dmae Roberts’ Stage & Studio podcast interview with Fujii and Watanabe.