In a world where our lives are limited by pandemic restrictions, performance and travel have been reduced primarily to private tours and stays. The situation has spawned experiments to create innovative artistic experiences, the most recent being Okinawa Field Trip, an interactive virtual play from Georgetown University’s Theater and Performance Studies program, designed to explore themes of environmental issues, US-Japan relations, social justice, and historical reconciliation. Led by Associate Professor and Playwright / Director Natsu Onoda Power in a student-designed group process, Okinawa Field Trip is a curious study. As a âperformanceâ, it raises questions that professional artists and students must seriously grapple with in order to attempt intercultural work.
A first question is “Who is this for? – Who is the audience? “
In opening, Doug E. Dugong, a puppet representing an endangered marine mammal native to certain parts of the Indo-Pacific, invites us to join him in a “magic bus”. This cheerful, fat figure, who greets and wants to engage audiences in songs with lyrics like âWho knows what we’ll see / in the land of the possible / in Okinawa,â leaves no doubt that the show is created for children. It is learning through entertainment. (Simple language lessons are added and a bit on Okinawan history.) But the scenes darken and the material more “adult”, portraying situations of protest and political unrest. There’s even a scene in a bar, with alcohol shots lined up where the âtourâ reveals another side of the port city and military base culture. This throws the audience into a state of confusion and not everyone knows how to engage.
A more satisfying experience that answers this question can be found in the work of another company, BASAbali, which engaged children from across the island of Bali in the creation of the superhero character Luh Ayu. In both books and recently an animated film, BASAbali addresses some of the same issues as Okinawan Field Trip, including environmental challenges affecting native flora and fauna and the rescue of an indigenous language and culture. Its target audience of children is always kept in mind.
Another question that arises is “Who can tell the story?”
In recent years, this issue has come to dominate the conversation and fuel cultural wars. Intercultural experiences are even more subject to criticism.
Power is a powerful local voice and an advocate for an authentic and respectful narrative. I would welcome him to a conversation on this topic. For me, there were âcringeyâ moments throughout the evening.
However, one of the most successful depictions of Okinawa Field Trip is the insertion of a ghost character, an American GI who comes to life as someone stationed at the American base in 1969. Here we get a welcome taste of the character’s dramatic complexity. You could see that the young actor had done his homework and chosen a role and a situation with built-in conflict. The character straddles the worlds of the US military and Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He is also an African American in what many believed to be US-occupied Okinawa when “back home” the civil rights movement had exploded the previous year in riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
There is also a Japanese musician who serves as a local guide and teacher. He made it his mission to use music and storytelling to save the local Okinawan language of this island long colonized by the Japanese. His participation gave us rare moments of rich authenticity.
This brings me to a final question I had while watching this play: “How do I avoid the culture of surfacing and instead dive deeper and activate an emotional connection at the heart of the theater?”
The International Baccalaureate (IP) Primary Years Program and other models of international schools have grappled with the same challenge for many decades. The leaders of âbest practicesâ denounce the pitfalls associated with the annual release of what they call âflags, parties and festivalsâ. Unfortunately, there were quite a few âflag and partyâ blunders in Doug E. Dugong’s tour. The show even included a pit stop for lunch where local cuisine was touted and virtually sampled. Meanwhile, puppet Doug-ee bit down on the manatee-like creature’s favorite sea grass.
Finding mature and stimulating source material suited to the age group and goals of Georgetown University’s best might offer solutions. A few books come to mind: Director Sir Peter Hall’s Cities in civilization about the intersection of civic and cultural histories and the fine work of local writer Blair A. Ruble, The muse of urban delirium: how the performing arts paradoxically transformed cities in conflict into centers of cultural innovation. The writing of Ruble on the Japanese city of Osaka and the socio-political-economic factors which brought about the flourishing of the Kabuki theater is particularly strong.
When it comes to performance in the face of our environmental crisis, you can bet there will be more companies floundering to save species like the dugong and hopefully get people to act on climate change. and the continued degradation of humans and contempt for nature. This project could be a step in preparing students for the new field of defending the arts in the service of the planet.
Duration: approximately 90 minutes.
Okinawa Field Trip is available to watch live at 7 p.m. ET April 19-22 and April 26-29, 2021. Register for free at Eventbrite.
This virtual event is the main project of the âSeeds of Change: Reimagining the Worldâ season of Georgetown University’s Theater and Performance Studies program, celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Davis Performing Arts Center.