Review: ‘Ballad of Yachiyo’

Phillip Kan Gotanda's stately, impressionistic tale of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii in the early 20th century is a quiet drama that eventually seeps into the unconscious, but is slow to engage as theater.

Phillip Kan Gotanda’s stately, impressionistic tale of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii in the early 20th century is a quiet drama that eventually seeps into the unconscious, but is slow to engage as theater.

The play is based on Gotanda’s aunt Yachiyo Matsumoto (Sala Iwamatsu), who lived with her parents on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in the early part of the century; the tale follows a familiar pattern of tragic love, but in the particular context of the tightly bound Hawaiian community.

Yachiyo’s parents, Hisao (Sab Shimono) and Takayo (Dian Kobayshi), who are struggling in poverty in the cane fields, decide to send their 16-year-old daughter off Waimea to work as a potter’s assistant to Hiro Takamura (Lane Nishikawa) and his wife Sumiko (Emily Kuroda).

Takamura is a vain and self-centered man, tortured by the legacy of his father, a renowned potter in Japan. In between drinking bouts, he torments Yachiyo as she tries valiantly to perform her onerous duties. The only relief Yachiyo finds is in the company of Takamura’s wife, who befriends the young girl and teaches her the rudiments of the tea ceremony.

Slowly, inevitably, Yachiyo becomes more attached to Takamura, as he reveals his inner pain. She forgets her boyfriend back home, Willie Higa (Eric Steinberg), and falls in love with Takamura. When his wife discovers Yachiyo’s betrayal and Yachiyo becomes pregnant, the full tragedy blossoms.

While the story has the overtones of a soap opera, and seems to unfold almost as slowly, playwright Gotanda and director Sharon Ott infuse a deeper, more mythological element into the piece with the use of marvelous scenic design by Loy Arcenas, evocative music by Dan Kuramoto and Bunraku puppets created and choreographed by Bruce Schwartz.

Unfortunately, despite the cultural overlay, the play remains a soap opera, slight and somewhatlaboriously told. It unfurls in slow motion, often beautiful to observe, but rarely engaging to the emotions until the predictable ending. It is, for the most part, bathed in a kind of cultural nostalgia and reverence that is often death to drama, anesthetizing the audience to strong emotions.

The performances are generally strong, with Shimono a warm standout as Yachiyo’s father, and Nishikawa effective and charismatic as the tortured Takamura. Iwamatsu is convincing as Yachiyo, although somewhat distant in her portrayal. Annie Yee does a lively turn as her friend and Kuroda has some strong moments a Takamura’s wife.

As she did with “Woman Warrior” last year at the Doolittle, director Ott proves effective in creating an evocative mood piece. However, the shallow material here leaves her with more style than substance.

Ballad of Yachiyo

South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa; 507 seats; $38 top


South Coast Repertory presents a drama in two acts by Phillip Kan Gotanda; director, Sharon Ott.


Sets, Loy Arcenas; costumes, Lydia Tanji; lighting, Peter Maradudin; music, Dan Kuramoto; sound design, Stephen LeGrand; puppet creation and choreography, Bruce Schwartz. Opened Jan. 12, 1996; reviewed Jan. 21; runs through Feb. 11. Running time: 2 hours, 15 min.


Cast: Sala Iwamatsu (Yachiyo Matsumoto), Lane Nishikawa (Hiro Takamura), Sab Shimono (Hisao Matsumoto), Dian Kobayashi (Takayo Matsumoto), Emily Kuroda (Sumiko Takamura), Eric Steinberg (Willie Higa), Annie Yee (Osugi Chung); Michelle Camaya, Si Hwa Noh, Tomomi Itakura.
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