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[THEATER] Brenda Wong Aoki / Ghost Stories / Gunjiuo Aoki

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  • madchinaman
    Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki gains strength from traditional ghost stories Annie Nakao Chronicle Staff Writer The San Francisco Chronicle OCTOBER 23, 2004,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 26, 2004
      Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki gains strength from traditional ghost
      stories
      Annie Nakao
      Chronicle Staff Writer
      The San Francisco Chronicle
      OCTOBER 23, 2004, SATURDAY, FINAL EDITION
      SECTION: DAILY DATEBOOK; Pg. E1
      http://www.sfchronicle.com


      -

      But it was the story of her great-uncle, Gunjiro Aoki, that makes
      her family part of California history. In 1909, the elder Aoki's
      marriage to Helen Gladys Emery, the Caucasian daughter of Grace
      Cathedral's archdeacon, rocked San Francisco and the state. It
      prompted the California Legislature and the city to pass anti-
      miscegenation laws.

      The bride and groom fled to Seattle just ahead of mobs who had
      threatened to tar and feather them. Aoki's grandfather, the
      archdeacon's assistant who had brought his younger brother to San
      Francisco in the first place, was banished to Utah, where he took up
      sharecropping.

      -


      Once, when playwright and performer Brenda Wong Aoki had had a long
      day, she tried to wing it through son K.K.'s bedtime ritual by
      cheerily suggesting they read about "Mary Poppins."

      "Mom," he said in exasperation. "You're a storyteller."

      Keeping up that reputation, Aoki and her husband and collaborator,
      noted jazz bassist and composer Mark Izu, are presenting a musical
      tapestry of fantastical tales in their fourth annual "Ghost
      Festival" on Halloween weekend at the Yerba Buena Center for the
      Arts.

      "Mermaid Meat and Other Japanese Ghost Stories" offers spine-
      prickling stories of a dead wife's revenge, a regretful mermaid and
      mournful bells, as well as the thundering drums of special guest
      Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo.

      Ghost stories resonate this time of year, but to Aoki, they have an
      enduring power all their own.

      "When you're a ghost, what's left is your story, to pass on to the
      yet unborn," she says, with a meaningful smile. "What's fascinating
      about ghost stories is that they transcend race and everything else.
      That's because they have to do with the human condition -- greed,
      jealousy, love."

      Stories have been welling up inside Aoki all her life, and this
      evening, as she sits in a tiny noodle house in Japantown with Izu
      and their son, 11-year-old K.K., is no exception.

      Even dressed down for a rainy evening, Aoki is striking -- dark hair
      piled luxuriously atop her head, making her fair skin more luminous.
      Her expressive brown eyes, framed by a set of flaring eyebrows, seem
      to punctuate her every thought about storytelling, art and life.

      "In the story, 'Mermaid Meat,' a young girl who feasts on the flesh
      of a mermaid lives forever," Aoki says. "She succeeds in having
      eternal life but ends up being cursed by it."

      Aoki borrowed the idea from a Japanese proverb, "eat the flesh of a
      mermaid and you'll live forever." Ten years later, she
      wrote "Mermaid Meat" for Berkeley Symphony conductor Kent Nagano.

      "At the heart of it, what I am is a storyteller," she says. "In
      fact, Mark and I are modern day biwa-hoshi -- itinerate storytellers
      of Japan."

      Biwa-hoshi were lute players or minstrels who traveled the
      countryside and cities of ancient Japan as professional storytellers
      and healers. It's an apt description for the 50-year-old couple, who
      have succeeded in blending the old and new.

      Izu, the artistic director of the Asian American Jazz Festival for
      20 years until he stepped down in 2000, has studied gagaku, a form
      of musical composition of the Japanese imperial court. Aoki's stage
      training -- she spent the 1970s in an arduous apprenticeship with
      Yuriko Doi's Theater of Yugen in San Francisco, -- has lent her
      works a striking spareness.

      Ten years ago, she and Izu formed First Voice, a nonprofit whose
      productions have blended Izu's music with Aoki's storytelling about
      cultural intersections, those places where, she says, "people need
      to pay attention."

      Along the way, they've collaborated with notable artists.

      This life of performing has also engaged their son, whose nickname
      is short for Kai Kane. In "Mermaid," K.K., a charmingly unaffected
      kid with long lashes and a head of tousled dark curls, plays a guide
      who facilitates the exchange of chi, or energy, between the
      performers and the audience.

      "I'm Chi Boy," K.K. says proudly.

      Family is frequently the core of Aoki's storytelling. Her own
      fascinating family history is probably why. Of Chinese, Japanese,
      Spanish and Scots descent, Aoki has deep San Francisco roots. Her
      paternal grandfather, a Christian priest, helped found the city's
      Japantown.

      But it was the story of her great-uncle, Gunjiro Aoki, that makes
      her family part of California history. In 1909, the elder Aoki's
      marriage to Helen Gladys Emery, the Caucasian daughter of Grace
      Cathedral's archdeacon, rocked San Francisco and the state. It
      prompted the California Legislature and the city to pass anti-
      miscegenation laws.

      The bride and groom fled to Seattle just ahead of mobs who had
      threatened to tar and feather them. Aoki's grandfather, the
      archdeacon's assistant who had brought his younger brother to San
      Francisco in the first place, was banished to Utah, where he took up
      sharecropping.

      Aoki, who was born in Salt Lake City, never knew the story until
      years later, when investigating her family history, she was told the
      tale by a 109-year-old cousin. Aoki, who verified the story by
      researching the files of San Francisco newspapers, later wrote and
      performed a play, "Uncle Gunjiro's Girlfriend."

      "She said she wouldn't die until the story would be told," Aoki
      says. "She died the very next year, when she was 110."
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