Play Remembers Nagasaki, Hiroshima
Ohana Arts brings its original musical production ‘Peace On Your Wings’ to Hawaii Theatre Aug. 6-9. Based on the too-short life of Sadako Sasaki, it commemorates the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
A single voice rings out, echoing in a mostly barren room.
Quiet at first, it grows louder and stronger as a few more join in, harmonizing with one another. Then quickly, too soon, it drifts away, dissolving into laughter and chatter.
It lasted only a few minutes, maybe even less, but it’s a captivating and impromptu look at the talent behind Peace On Your Wings, an original musical written by Laurie Rubin and Jenny Taira, and produced by Ohana Arts. A fictional piece of work, it is inspired by Sadako Sasaki, famous for her 1,000 paper cranes.
Its cast of 36 students is set to hit the stage Aug. 6-9 at Hawaii Theatre — dates that also coincide with the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As complex as the story may seem, the message Peace On Your Wings hopes to perpetuate is rather simple: ichigo ichie.
“Today is the first and last day of your life,” explains Taira.
“You may never encounter the same people … the same thing ever again, so you just have to enjoy every moment,” adds Rubin.
On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 — around 8:15 a.m. — a United States B-29 dropped a bomb that exploded above the city of Hiroshima in Japan. Another would detonate above Nagasaki a few days later.
It was the world’s first look at an atomic bomb. And it was devastating.
Many instantly were killed (BBC estimates it was anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 individuals). Others — like Sadako, who was 2 at the time of the bombing, and died at the age of 12 from leukemia — would be severely affected from exposure to the bomb’s radiation.
Peace On Your Wings draws on historical details like these and biographical accounts of Sadako’s life to tell its story. Set in Hiroshima in the 1950s, when she is in middle school, the musical follows Sadako and her friends as they come to terms with her illness.
Certain aspects of the play may seem familiar to those who have read about Sadako, but Peace On Your Wings is its own story.
“When we were doing research, we decided not to make the play directly a musical about (the book) Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” says Rubin. “We decided to write it about the real Sadako.”
To do this, Rubin and Taira relied on information from Masahiro, Sadako’s older brother. They also discovered a book written by a girl named Kiyo, who lived in the hospital with Sadako — a character they eventually created for Peace On Your Wings.
Instead of focusing solely on Sadako, the plot also explores her friends, who rallied for a memorial to be built after her death.
“It relates more to kids today,” says Taira.
It’s a story that comes to life through 22 songs written and composed entirely by Rubin and Taira. Both experienced performers — Taira is a composer, songwriter and producer, and also plays clarinet and piano, and Rubin is a mezzo-soprano — they have been collaborating since meeting in grad school at Yale University.
Together, in 2010, along with Carolyn Taira (director of Hongwanji Mission School Performing Theatre), they founded Ohana Arts. A nonprofit organization that utilizes the facilities at Hongwanji Mission School, it is dedicated to cultivating artistic talent in a meaningful and professional setting.
“Our mission is to promote peace and world friendship through the universal language of the arts,” says Taira.
Last January, they received a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts. Taira had long been toying with the idea of adapting Sadako’s story, having first learned about her in elementary school. With a fiscal year deadline of December looming, she and Rubin got to work — in between their usual schedules as touring musicians and Ohana Arts’ summer program.
“We couldn’t think about it, we just had to do it,” says Rubin.
Auditions took place at the same time Rubin and Taira were completing the musical’s songs. Some roles, like that of Masahiro, played by Carson Davis, were written with the actor in mind. It’s an experience of originating and interpreting a role that Rubin says she and Taira wanted for cast members.
“I’ve learned how to really develop a character,” says Davis. “I had to really create it myself.”
The world, it seems, is more than interested in what Ohana Arts has to say — or perform, rather.
Last November, Peace On Your Wings debuted to a sold-out audience at Leeward Theatre before going on a statewide (also sold-out) tour to Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island.
After its four-day run at Hawaii Theatre, the cast will prepare for its North American premiere in September at Aratani Theatre in Los Angeles. Then, next July and August, the production will go to Japan for a four-city tour. New York and other countries, says Rubin and Taira, also are in the works.
“I’m thrilled,” says Rubin, “but I’m happier for my cast.”
“It’s been really overwhelming,” says Shayna Yasunaga, who plays Sadako. “It’s really fun.”
It’s a response they credit to the overarching themes of the play. Peace On Your Wings isn’t merely another story detailing Sadako’s life. It also addresses issues such as bullying and self-identity — all of it emphasizing ichigo ichie.
It also is, notes Taira, a testament to the work cast members have put into it.
“It’s kind of like we have 36 children,” she says with a laugh. “The amount of growth and confidence that we’ve seen — they’ve gone from really good performing arts students to professionals in the past year.”
More than anything, Peace On Your Wings represents the power youths possess in telling a profound story.
“People come into it thinking it’s a kid’s play,” says Rubin. “Then they realize that kids, or youths, can deliver a message probably even more strongly than adults because it’s pure and it’s real and it’s genuine.”
In many ways, Peace On Your Wings is indicative of the direction Rubin and Taira plan to take Ohana Arts. Next year, for instance, the organization hopes to bring in students from around the world to take part in its summer program.
Eventually, says Taira, the goal is to become a boarding high school for artists so that “kids can come study a discipline in a very serious, pre-professional way.”
It’s a lofty goal, but one that already is taking shape through Peace On Your Wings.
“It’s really incredible,” says Davis of Ohana Arts. “It’s like a program for kids but one that turns you into professionals — they give you experience; they treat you like a professional.”
Inspired by their own time spent at such schools — Taira at Interlochen Arts Academy and Rubin at Boston
University’s Tanglewood Institute — they hope to one day offer the same experience to students here.
“It was just kind of amazing to see how much the arts transcends any kind of differences,” says Taira.
“When you explore music with other like-minded people, it’s very powerful,” adds Rubin, whose interest in music sometimes left her an outcast in school. “Watching them learn and discover things for the first time is probably the most rewarding thing about working with youths.”
Ohana Arts will perform Peace On Your Wings at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Hawaii Theatre. Tickets cost $25-$35 general admission, or $15 for students. On Thursday only, “family opening night” tickets cost only $5 for students 17 and under. Preceding the Saturday and Sunday performances, Sadako’s brother Masahiro will speak, followed by a musical performance by his son, singer-songwriter Yuji Sasaki. For tickets, visit hawaiitheatre.com or call 528-0506. For more information on Peace On Your Wings, visit peaceonyourwings.com.