Iizuka's '36 Views'

Naomi Iizuka (Photo: faculty.washington.edu)

In a series of 36 interlocking scenes, Naomi Iizuka's new play explores the relationship between the imaginary and the real. 36 Views is prefaced with a quotation from Matthew Luckiesh's Visual Illusions: "Only a part of what is perceived comes through the senses from the object; the remainder always comes from within." Iizuka's story unfolds into a progression of visual symbols, objects, and human relationships that reveal the power of perception.

Set in the Asian art world, the story focuses on the discovery of a one-of-a-kind Japanese pillow book, a diary of a court lady, that turns the academic field of Asian antiquity upside down. As scholars, art dealers and reporters clamor over the finding, we realize that everything is not as it seems. Along with this kind of intrigue, the play is supported by a beautiful production design that integrates both ancient and modern styles. Elegant kimonos and urban street wear, traditional and contemporary art, and a stage with traditional Japanese sliding screens and multimedia projections create the impression of worlds converging.

Why did you decide to explore the subject of authenticity in the context of the Asian art world?

The origin of the piece was from the Japanese artist Hokusai's 36 views [of Mt. Fuji]. So the play actually started from an artifact from the Asian art world. From that I began to think about the issue of authenticity, not in terms of fake or authentic woodblock prints, but authenticity in a larger sense that includes issues of identity, love, and relationships with culture. The fact that Hokusai's project was to examine and depict the mountain from many different perspectives really spoke to me. There was something intrinsic in that effort, suggesting it is impossible to see something clearly and completely head on. In order to understand a piece of art or a person or a relationship, you really have to look at it from many different angles. This idea, in contrast to the belief that there is one true way of seeing or valuing something, was evident to me early on in my writing process.

The romance between a white male and a perceived "exotic" Asian female is a cliché seen throughout the history of American media. Did you consider this as you wrote the characters of Darius Wheeler and Setsuko Hearn?

I think from the second scene of the play when Setsuko begins to speak it is clear that she is very self-conscious of all those stereotypes and history. I think it is dangerous to run away from history. I am much more interested in looking at something difficult and really fraught with a lot of problems and then challenging it from a close perspective, as opposed to just not dealing with it when creating the characters or the story.

The character of John Bell, who writes the alleged pillow book, creates a very convincing voice as a Japanese court lady. This is an integral part of your story. Have you read Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha? What is your opinion of the book and the fact that it was written by a white male recreating the voice of a Japanese geisha?

Yes, I've read the book and so much criticism about that book. I've read other books about geishas and also books by Liza Dalby who actually went to Kyoto and lived among geishas as an anthropologist for many years. I think that Arthur Golden tried to stay historically accurate to capture that world. The problem is an interesting issue. In Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, she talks about how good writers are androgynous and are able to embody lots of different characters, genders, and I would extend this to ethnicities and races. It is tricky.

This white guy wrote this book which in some ways seems very problematic. I hope that the character of John Bell in some way triggers all those issues in people's minds that are not clear cut. He is such a likable character that for the most part you feel, "Oh my god, here's this guy hiding his light under a bushel and this is his great passion and love and he clearly has a lot of ambivalence going on inside of him."

So the jury is out for me about the whole Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. You should try to read it not thinking about who the author is because it is an incredibly engaging and actually a very feminist read. It's about a woman who ultimately figures out how to work her world and how to shed all the different things that have been weighing her down culturally and economically.

Susan Weiss's review in Culturevulture says, "According to philosopher/critic George Santayana, a work of art is most successful when the feeling and the form coincide. This seems to be what happens in 36 Views, a play about fraud in the art world. Paradoxically, this also is what makes Iizuka's play fall short of true art. The playwright's clever hand is visible in almost every scene." How do you respond to that criticism?

Something that has always been interesting to me is how you create a new form. In this play, this was in the forefront of my mind. This might not be to everyone's taste. What is tricky is that this play, depending on your expectations and personal perspective, seems to be one thing but turns out to be something different. It perhaps frustrates the expectations that this is going to be a drawing room comedy, a romance, a mystery, or a meditation on authenticity. Also the piece challenges you and gets in your face at times. I wonder if she [Weiss] feels this with certain male writers who take a strong hand in story, character, and form.

The production design of the play is very effective in helping to communicate the story. Can you explain how you collaborated with your design team and why you chose to integrate multimedia?

I was fortunate to work with amazingly talented and committed designers from a really early point. Myung Hee Cho, Doug Stein, David Weiner, Ruppert bohle and Matt Spiro were working on the project back in California. Mark Wing-Davey, the director, and Doug Stein have worked together several times before and have a working history.

I wanted this piece to be something that you could come to not knowing anything about Asian art or history and still get something from it. Or if you did know something about it that it would also speak to you. You see this in Myung's costumes; for instance, the costume at the very beginning of the play is a historically accurate Heian era kimono in terms of the layers, the cut, and the red pants. The challenge is to work with these elements in a historically accurate way and at the same time find a new voice and deal with issues of how a contemporary person confronts all this history. I think that Myung really tackled that in a smart and witty way with her costumes.

How the multimedia got involved in the production is a tribute to Ruppert Bohle's personal genius. There are points in the script that called for this use of multimedia. The fake Hokusai print turning to brighter lurid colors is actually a stage direction in the script. This was the genesis for thinking about using projections. In some ways the projections are a seventh character. There is something about them that is so present at every moment of the play.

Did your own personal experiences influence the creation of any of the characters or plot of the play?

36 Views is the play that I more consciously drew from personal experiences. But I don't think I was always aware in the writing of how close it hits home in certain ways. I was taken aback with the degree to which it mirrors certain concerns and experiences, but in a fun-house mirror way, not necessarily in a one-to-one relationship. I learned a lot about bringing myself to the table with this project.

What made you choose to write for theatre? Have there been challenges for you as an Asian American female playwright?

I chose to write for theatre relatively late. I started college as a classics major and i was in law school for a year. My family never went to the theatre when i was growing up. Ididn't experience the culture of seeing and making theatre until much later, at the end of college and afterwards. i met some very smart and committed people who were working in theatre at the time. I think sometimes you get pulled into a field because of mentors and colleagues that impress and inspire you. That's what happened with me.

In terms of being an Asian American writer, I'm mixed race. I think there are issues about being racially mixed that are different that for people who are Japanese-American, or Korean-American, or Chinese-American in background. People don't know where I come from. My father is Japanese. My mother is Latina. There is a line in the play, "I look at you and I don't know what i'm seeing." I think a lot of people look at me and don't know what they're seeing. There are issues that people who are of mixed heritage deal with that are complicated in terms of finding their home in a specific ethnic group.

Someone who has been a huge inspiration to me has been Chay Yew. He is a playwright and also a director. I admire Chay for working with the infrastructure of theatre and theatre-making to provide more opportunities to Asian-American artists. He is very involved with East West Players and the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and he just took over NATCO in seattle. I take heart in Chay and other artists like him.

Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of Asia Society.