Banished families, anti-Asian hysteria, and two lives interwoven by activism and art. These themes make up the multifaceted performance of Bay Area storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki’s AUNT LILY’S FLOWER BOOK: 100 YEARS OF LEGALIZED RACISM, which will close CAAMFest this year on May 24 at the Herbst Theater. Wong Aoki shifts between playing multiple characters, from her own ancestors to those of her husband’s, composer Mark Izu. AUNT LILY’S centers around the hopes and successes of each family, and the impact of long-standing anti-Asian sentiment: from Izu’s father, who served in (and survived) the 442nd during World War II, to Wong Aoki’s Japanese grandfather, who was kicked out of the San Francisco community he founded. AUNT LILY’S is Wong Aoki’s way to bring about community healing. Rather than “watching a play,” she says, “It’s about bearing witness. These are people who really lived.”
— Diana Tsuchida
What was your biggest inspiration for writing AUNT LILY’S FLOWER BOOK: 100 YEARS OF LEGALIZED RACISM?
It’s a compilation of things, which is kind of amazing that it all worked. But it’s basically pulling together my personal story, my family with Mark’s family and putting it together through the lens of us as performing artists. We came into the arts as activists. Mark had been a union organizer in San Francisco, and I had come more from education and community organizing around street gangs and keeping the peace. At some point we realized there are good people doing social service, but there’s not as many people impacting the human heart and energizing the soul. And if you can’t energize the soul, a general will tell you that you can’t win a war without the hearts and minds.
When you were unearthing family stories, which one shocked you the most?
I was blown away to find out that my grandpa had founded [San Francisco] Japantown in 1897. He was sent by the Meiji Emperor to start the first Japanese settlement in America with support from the Episcopal Church, which at the time was called the Anglican Church. All I knew is that I was a ghetto girl from Long Beach who was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. And then I find out that grandpa was daimyo [feudal lords]. We go back to the Yoshinaka and the Genji Heike wars. We had pedigree. And when grandpa’s little brother Gunjiro ran away with a white girl, he must have been humiliated that the archdeacon of the church, who was of lower status, could send him and grandma away to Utah to convert the Mormons.
What I realized is that knowing your past you can change your future. But I didn’t really understand until now that you have to try really hard to change your future. The past is so responsible for your behavior and your perspective.
You live on both sides of the cultural landscape with Chinese and Japanese heritage. Was that part of the reason why you wanted to do a performance like AUNT LILY’S?
I have to be inspired. It is has to feel that there was some divine intervention that says, “This is what needs to be said through the collective unconsciousness right now.” Before Aunt Lily came out, I was supposed to do another show, a much easier thing because Obama was in, and then Hillary was going to win, and life was just going to go on. I thought maybe it was a nice time for a love story. And when Trump won, it was just so jaw-dropping, it was just like some sci-fi horror movie. And I felt that the job of a storyteller is to bring the community together to act as an intermediary between the universe and the people and weave us together strategies for living, hope in hard times, and reassurance that humankind has been here before.
Is there anything you do to prepare to perform? Do you have some kind of ritual?
I rehearse a lot. I rehearse about a month in advance with just myself. And then we have about eight rehearsals with the band and then we have three rehearsals with the multimedia. I can’t really start talking to anybody about a month before showtime, I have to just really be in the show. I want to stay with all these people. I feel so responsible.
What advice do you give to aspiring storytellers and artists who want to utilize their family stories?
I think it’s really important to speak in first person. If you can get stories in first person, nothing beats primary source. And you have to really dig through your consciousness and feel whether or not you’re pimping pain because some people like to go out there and wallow in their sorrow, but what is the point? Use it to build a connection between hearts.
When people watch AUNT LILY’S at CAAMFest, what meaning do you hope they take away?
I want us to come together and shine our lights together because you know, more flashlights together make more clarity in the darkness.That’s basically what we’ve got right now, we’ve got somebody pulling the wool over our eyes. We just need to shine a light. I learned this from my Chinese side: You can’t let them get you down because then they’re winning. And if nothing else, just live.
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