Interview by H. Varian
Tell me a little about your art and inspiration.
I am an American storyteller.
I trained in classical Nogaku, Japanese theater developed in the Muramachi period (14th century). There are two complementary elements of the art. Noh is structured, refined, and elite. It is song and stylized dance, historical, literarily-inspired theater expressed with beautiful masks on an elegantly spare stage. Kyogen is spoken word, kind of lightly comedic folktales of the “everyman” performed on the same stage. Together, Noh and Kyogen are meant to represent human destiny and human nature, performed for the Samurai classes.
Eventually, I gravitated to Kabuki , a theatrical style begun in the 17th century by a woman and performed for the merchant and lower classes. Legend says that Kabuki developed from itinerant priestesses sharing stories across the Japanese countryside, sort of oral Pony Express. Of course, the patriarchy co-opted the art and men performed all the parts on the stage. Like Shakespeare. I was particularly fond of the Japanese art of storytelling, Rakugo . I studied hard with a master and I really loved it.
I know what you are thinking right now. What does this have to do with America? Mainly, that I almost gave up. Because I asked myself the same thing. Was this really my calling? I am a woman. I am an American. I don’t even speak Japanese. But my teacher was a master and he encouraged me (in broken English), “That is what is so exciting. America is a new people. You will make a new art form. You will create new stories.”
That was it. I was moved and inspired. And I am glad I stuck with it. Because, in the research for and performance of my art, I discovered my ancestry. My patriarchal grandfather was the founder of San Francisco Japantown’s Buddhist Church. My matriarchal grandmother was one of the founders of San Francisco Chinatown’s garment district. I didn’t know any of that because my parents didn’t know. I thought we were sharecroppers from Salt Lake (but that’s another story). 2017 is my family’s 120th anniversary in this country. When does my art become American?
What exactly do you do? How do you share your stories?
I make my living as an itinerant storyteller. I have travelled all over country—from the coasts to the heartland, Appalachia to the South. I have to say, the people that I encounter on my travels are almost never what I expect. And the most important thing I have learned is that, when you tell stories, you have to be ready to listen, too.
Will you talk a little about your touring and the Americans you meet on the road?
My stories started out to be distinctly, traditionally Asian-American, because of my Japanese and Chinese heritage. And that fact is sometimes confusing on its own because Asian culture isn’t as prevalent in the rest of the country as it is as part of the Pacific Rim. As a Californian, I was surprised that a college co-ed from Minnesota, a girl I was trying to bond with woman-to-woman, would interrupt me to remark about my remarkably fine English. And that, after explaining that I was Sansei (third generation), she did it again. After enquiring about her heritage (her grandfather emigrated from Germany), I think it says a lot about our educational system that she didn’t understand why I mentioned that her English was remarkably fine, too.
These kind of misunderstandings persist beyond the youth of America. In Las Vegas, I was part of a series that promoted artistic crossover—multicultural understanding—and my performance coincided with the grand opening of the brand spanking new performance art center. The presenters held their opening gala prior to the event. And the donors and other Very Important Money Men (no, just say “people”) wanted to meet me. If you have ever performed in a show or run in a race or spoken in a debate or presented a sales pitch or anything that you needed to psych up for, you know that before whatever-the-challenge is not the time to break concentration. But I was honored and intimidated (and new) and so I went. I met the PAC president, who also told me that I spoke very fine English. Not trying to be offensive, I said that my family was from Salt Lake. “What part of Japan is that?” he asked. I totally didn’t know what to say. “Um, Salt Lake is in Utah?” He stammered and stumbled, suggesting that must be why my eyes were rounder and prettier, until the presenter finally noticed everybody’s mutual embarrassment (mostly mine) and steered me back to the dressing room. She chattered away, all apologetic, as I stared into the dressing room mirror. I was appalled! “Oh, no! Why tell didn’t you tell me I had lipstick on my teeth this whole time, besides?” I nearly shouted at her. I was mortified! “I thought it might be a cultural thing,” she mumbled sheepishly.
But the truth is that America is such a vast cultural landscape, it’s hard to know everything that we don’t know about each other. In the South (New Orleans specifically), I was invited to do a secondary school residency performance. The teachers let me know that the black students and the Vietnamese students were having conflicts and she hoped that my show would help. I was supposed to be the traditional voice of a culture. Never mind that it was not the right actual culture and I had yet to even visit the continent. Art can be both cathartic and inclusive, after all. At show time, though, only the Vietnamese students were present. They were slick, hip-hop, cool. I delivered my traditional stories. Two claps and they were gone. I bombed. That had never happened at a school before. I was almost breathless as I stood there in the auditorium. There was just me and one young Vietnamese girl left—glasses, plastic shoes—she was totally FOB (fresh off the boat). She was very apologetic for the other kids who left so unceremoniously. “Ms. Oakie? Sorry ‘bout that. Your stories are nice, but this is N’awlins. We all Cajun here.” Wow.
I go to Appalachia a lot, too. Kentucky has a big storytelling festival and it’s a storytelling community. In some parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the unemployment rate hovers around 70% and storytelling is entertainment. I mean, it’s not a place where they disdain things like electricity—some places just don’t have it. I don’t know what I expected when I was booked for a workshop connected to a Louisville performance. We drove for ages to get to this place—a bus/van, and then a four-wheel drive. It was nice terrain, but I was starting to think about tolerance and, sure, a little “Deliverance.” I knew there were out-of-work coal miners here, but that’s about it. Finally, we hiked a long, long way. After forever, the woods opened into a meadow and we arrived. In Disneyland? It sure looked like it. The houses were fresh and the yards were pristine. There were gardens and flowers, just really beautiful. What gives? “You still on money?” one of the ladies laughed, when I tried to be discreet about asking why the community didn’t look like the shantytown I assumed. Apparently, they had long ago “regressed” to the barter system; money doesn’t work in an out-of-work community.
By now, I realized that the most potent stories—that touch people and elicit the most response— come from real-life, personal stories. So I told my life story (to that point) of growing up poor in Long Beach, of gangs, of LA smog and refineries. My dad had emigrated from Salt Lake to raise the six of us in a two-room house next to the flood control. My father was an orphan raised by his eldest sister and that is one of the stories he carried with him—of the sacrifice of the onesan . So, as the eldest sister myself, I feel the responsibility of the onesan , too. Two beautiful girls waited long after the audience left to thank me. For telling their story. Even though we were from such different places and cultures and worlds, each girl recognized the responsibility and guilt of wanting a different life in the portrait of the elder sister.
A Native American storyteller once shared with me that there are really only twelve stories in the world and we reinvent them. Like the hero’s journey.
We can all make judgments about others, but it is better to stand in their shoes. I assumed that the hip, chic young couple I met at the Captain Cook hotel in Alaska were yuppies from the lower 48. In fact, they were Inuits on break from their respective Ivy League colleges to visit two different bush towns and their reindeer-herding parents. They talked, too, about the importance of wealth—the girl was concerned that her mother was sometimes getting paid for her reindeer milk, sometimes not. “My customers do pay me,” her mother said, “with their laughter and their stories.”
What do you think about the future of storytelling? The future of art in America?
It’s important that we recognize the value of cultural heritage; it’s most important to remember that people’s stories are the threads in the tapestry of life. I have just been at national conferences and statewide conferences and regional conferences about the future of art in America. And the takeaway is that the most important thing we can do is continue. The Dalai Lama said, “The best revenge to genocide is to survive.” The best thing I can do right now is share stories. I am a storyteller and I have to honor that and keep doing it. If you are a teacher, teach. If you are a climate scientist, keep going. Create a safe space, an oasis, a place to recharge for the long challenges ahead.
Brenda Wong Aoki will be performing and sharing her road stories in Random Acts of Kindness (featuring master shamisen player Shoko Hikage) as part of the San Francisco International Art Festival ⋅ Southside Theater ⋅ Fort Mason Center Building D ⋅ Marina Blvd at Buchanan Street ⋅ San Francisco CA 94123 ⋅ Saturday May 27th 9:30 pm ⋅ Sunday May 28th 3:30 pm ⋅ Sunday June 3rd 7:00 pm