When the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan in March 2011, plenty of people filmed it and posted the footage. It takes a strong constitution to finish watching even one of those YouTube videos, which conjure a surreal apocalypse more horrifying than anything Hollywood has produced.
A seemingly endless black wave indiscriminately devours cities, suburbs, and farmland like a biblical plague, carrying away people, livestock, and cars. It spawns landslides and fires, decimates infrastructure, and causes meltdowns of three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In the end, the disaster claimed nearly 16,000 lives, left 4.4 million households without electricity, and caused an estimated $235 billion in damage.
For most Americans, the event seemed far, far away. But Michiko Kitayama Skinner, a Japanese-American working in Miami as a costume and set designer, has a personal connection to the region. Her mother grew up in the battered prefecture of Iwate, where the town of Otsuchi lost about 10 percent of its population to the disaster. Skinner's grandfather was a senator in Iwate. She wasn't about to stand by and idly watch the disaster movie play in front of her.
"Growing up in a political household, I did feel some kind of responsibility even though I was far away in Miami," Kitayama recalls. "I always love to tell stories and deal with socially relevant issues through my art. So I was thinking maybe we could do something to tell the stories [of the survivors]."
It turns out Kitayama's friend Nilo Cruz, the celebrated Miami playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize for 2003's Anna in the Tropics, was feeling the same sense of restlessness when he heard the news. "I was working with Michiko at the University of Miami; we had just finished a play," Cruz says. "We had heard what had happened in Japan, and we were both devastated and felt powerless. We had an immediate reaction of going to Japan. We thought that we should document the event in a play format."
Cruz and Kitayama received a University of Miami grant to visit Otsuchi, and a year after the tsunami, they interviewed more than 20 survivors, from tour guides and firefighters to fishermen, engineers, and monks. Kitayama, who has a command of both the language and the regional dialect, did the direct interviewing and transcribing — all while breastfeeding her 4-month-old.
"It was a very emotional experience," she recalls. "Each person did a two-hour-long interview. Some of them were quieter, but others were more eager to talk about the experience because it was more therapeutic for them to speak up about it. Even people who were helping us locally, they had never listened to other people's experiences. The whole team was in tears."
The next question Cruz and Kitayama faced was what to do with this compelling cache of first-person accounts? Cruz is primarily a fiction-based dramatist. Should they integrate some of these real stories into an invented narrative? "At the beginning, we didn't know what we were going to do," Cruz recalls. "But we discovered that all their stories were so intriguing that, at one point, Michiko and I looked at each other and we thought to ourselves, It has to be left in a way that we heard the voices. We decided to create a docudrama out of all these interviews we had gathered."
The result, three painstaking years later, is Tsunami, which world-premieres Saturday in a coproduction including Arca Images, the University of Miami, and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Cruz directs six professional actors, each playing four distinct parts, through a script composed entirely of the transcribed accounts, which will be presented onstage as a pastiche of monologues.
Through staging, costumes, and sets that suggest Japanese theater forms such as Kabuki, the poetry of the survivors' words will paint vivid pictures of the tsunami and its aftermath. There are stories of the sobering process of searching for and identifying bodies, after-death visitations, and fiery debates about the future of Japanese disaster prevention. Cruz and Kitayama hope to reveal human stories of survival, hope, and rebirth that act as a counterpoint to the disaster porn of American media.
They'll be doing it without a single Asian actor in their cast, a decision that initially resulted from budgetary concerns — there aren't enough working Asian actors in South Florida — but eventually became a proudly multicultural statement. There are Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian actors in the diverse cast. The narrative could have just as easily taken place in New Orleans in 2005, Indonesia in 2004, or Miami in 1992.
"When we were [in Japan], they were intrigued by me," Cruz remembers. "They said, 'Why are you interested in our story? Why would an American audience be interested in the destruction that happened here?' I had to say to them: 'We live in Miami, where we're constantly threatened by nature, by hurricanes, and we've gone through similar destruction.' So they sort of relaxed, because this wasn't for the purpose of making the story sensational or making use of the story for a commercial purpose."
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"Yes, we are all playing these people who are Japanese, but it's human stories, regardless of what country or cultural background a person is coming from," says Serafin Falcon, who portrays a tour guide, an engineer, an inn employee, and a tiger dancer. "You come to realize, approaching it as a foreigner, that you can very easily replace the names. The suffering that is articulated may be a little different, but that pain, that love, that loss still remains the same. It's universal."
Saturday, September 12, through October 3 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay; 786-573-5300, smdcac.org. Tickets cost $25 to $30.