The entire script of Ballad of Yachiyo is published in the February 1996 print issue. The play was inspired by Philip Kan Gotanda’s own family history. Its title character is a 16-year-old girl sent away from her home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to learn traditional Japanese skills that her mother hopes will land her a better husband. When she becomes romantically involved with her employer, a married potter, she finds herself in a difficult, and ultimately tragic, situation.
A seminal figure in Asian-American drama, as well as a musician and filmmaker, Gotanda has written frequently about the interplay of racial and ethnic identities within individuals, families and communities, in such plays as Yohen, The Wash, After the War, I Dream Of Chang and Eng and Love in American Times. His works for the theatre also include Yankee Dawg You Die, A Fist of Roses, #5 Angry Red Drum and Sisters Matsumoto. A profile of Gotanda appeared in American Theatre in March 2007.
Nina Siegal: How did the writing process for Ballad of Yachiyo begin?
Philip Kan Gotanda: I worked on the play on and off for about 10 years, while I was working on other projects. A lot of my works tend to gather aspects of their stories; I sit on them until something finally happens. In this instance, my wife was in the hospital for an operation, and since we don’t have any children I decided to stay in the hospital with her in her room. While I was there I began to write the draft of Ballad of Yachiyo that I used for this production. I’m not sure why—I just know it had something to do with sitting there in this hospital room at night with my wife next to me.
While in the process of writing an earlier draft of Yachiyo, I met David Hockney at an awards ceremony for the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, where we were both receiving awards. It was right after that that I saw a documentary about how he worked. This was during the period when he was making cubist pictures out of photographs—he would take photographs and put them on a wall and move them around to achieve different perspectives. I had a very linear story line for this particular play, and I wanted to open the piece up a bit, so I started doing that with my writing. I would describe fragments of scenes on index cards, then move the card around, to see how it changed the piece. Literally breaking them up had the effect of deconstructing the scenes. It helped me open up the process.
At the same time, I was working on a more filmic approach to my playwriting. Yachiyo was always intended to be a play, but I wanted to use some cinematic qualities—I knew from the beginning that it was a play with a lot of filmic elements, like fades. I move freely from one location to another and there are many locations in the script. There are moments that dissolve into other moments, and these juxtapositions add to the sense of connection in the play. Sharon Ott also has a cinematic style of directing, and she and the designers were able to conceive what I think is a beautiful visual design.
Tell me about who the real Yachiyo was.
Yachiyo was my dad’s eldest sister, and Ballad of Yachiyo is an imagined account of her life. I knew some of the bare essentials: She was raised in a very small town, called Mana, on the island of Kauai. When she was 17 her parents sent her to another town to make her more marriageable. She met a married man, and got pregnant. She walked all the way home and then killed herself by taking ant poison.
I also had seen two photographs: One is a picture of her, taken right around the time she died, and other is of the funeral. I sat with those photographs for a long time. I knew that I wanted to write about her because I wanted to write about something that was close to my body—in some ways, Yachiyo is very connected to me. The other characters are pretty much imagined. Yachiyo’s mother and father are loosely based on my grandparents. I imagined the rest of the story from working with the Oral History Center at the University of Hawaii, and talking with my relatives and other old-timers.
Yachiyo’s story is almost archetypical: A woman falls in love with an inaccessible man, gets pregnant and commits suicide. Did you have any concerns about retelling that story?
I was very concerned about romanticizing the death of a young woman, turning it into a beautiful story. But the important thing became telling the real tale—the violent and unpretty truth of a real person who killed herself. At the end of the play I had an epitaph, “Dedicated to the memory of Yachiyo Gotanda, 1902–1919,” and Sharon added a photograph of her face—these two things are projected for the audience. I think that helps break the audience out of the mythology of the story. You’re confronted with the reality of this woman’s life and death.
In the play there are two dolls, or puppets, that convey some of the poetic undertones and also help develop other characters onstage. When did you decide to add them into the mix?
About 15 years ago, I saw Winston Tong, a San Francisco–based performance artist performing with dolls. He moved the dolls so beautifully; it was one of those moments where you see something onstage and you say, “That’s what it’s all about.” The performance has stayed in the back of my mind. I’ve used dolls in some earlier pieces of mine, and incorporated them into this script in the first draft. When we began working on this piece, Sharon recommended working with [puppet designer] Bruce Schwartz, and even though he had retired, he agreed to do it. It turned out that Bruce had also collaborated with Winston, and was very familiar with how he worked.
The dolls tend to bring out the more traditional Japanese elements of the play.
I’m not Japanese, I’m Japanese-American, and when I do use those elements, or that aesthetic, I approach it more from that perspective. On the other hand, I have intellectually pursued Japanese aesthetics: my degree is in Japanese Arts, and after I graduated I spent a year in Mashiko, Japan, north of Tokyo, and worked as an apprentice to a potter.
Pottery also figures in the play.
Yes. I always wanted to put pottery into a play. When I was working on Yachiyo, I got a great picture of a pottery in Kauai with some potters standing in front of their work. The photograph was taken in 1916, during the time period in which the play is set, which allowed me to put the potter into the play. Pottery is something that is really of the earth. You do so much work with the clay and then you put it into the kiln, and then it’s sort of up to the gods and the whim of the universe—there’s degree of chance about where the beauty appears. Yachiyo’s life is also a combination of personal choice and fortuitous circumstance, culminating in a story of beauty, sadness and death.