Fred Ho’s “Deadly She Wolf” at La Mama

 

Yoshi Amao, Jerry Ford & Ai Ikeda - Photo by Kenji Mori

Yoshi Amao, Jerry Ford & Ai Ikeda – Photo by Kenji Mori

Even after 7 years battling colon cancer, composer Fred Ho still doesn’t pull his punches. He has gathered a team of visionary collaborators for Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!, a spectacular mash up of contemporary and traditional Japanese forms, currently running at La Mama through June 2. After a 2005 workshop presentation at Japan Society and a premiere in Philadelphia, Ho was diagnosed with Stage 3B colorectal cancer and plans for future development were halted. Endless rounds of chemo, several surgeries, and a complete nutritional revolution have kept him alive til now, but with a recent diagnoses of 6-18 months left, Ho decided this project could not be left behind. The production’s director Sonoka Kawahara and her company Crossing Jamaica Avenue co-produced this NY version and with Masaru Koga leading Ho’s Afro Asian Music Ensemble, writer Ruth Margraff, choreographers Yoshi Amao and Emmanuel Brown, production design by Anka Lupes, lighting by Chad McArver, and a stellar cast of martial artists and La Mama regulars, Ho has channeled the creation of a theatrical production that can match the ballsy audacity of his jazz compositions with similar ferocity and skill. There are richly layered musical and visual references. Lupes’s costumes provide perfect textures for each role, bringing anime-like characterizations to these larger-than-life characters. The choreography is a beautifully varied array of performance combat vocabularies with both Brown and Amao bringing refinement and expertise in the composition of every battle. The fighters are truly martial Artists, dazzling in their virtuosity and engaging as live performers.

Teake and Yoshi Amao - Photo by Kenji Mori

Teake and Yoshi Amao – Photo by Kenji Mori

The “Martial Arts-Samurai Sword Fighting-Music/Theater Fantasy Action-Adventure Blockbuster” serves as an homage to the famous 70’s manga Lone Wolf and Cub, an epic Japanese comic that has spawned several film adaptations (including an upcoming Hollywood production directed by Justin Lin) and TV shows. The Deadly She Wolf production follows the Lone Wolf story of the Shogun’s executioner (played by a ferociously stalwart and embattled Yoshi Amao) who, after disgrace through false accusations from the villainous Iyagu (Perry Yung) becomes the Rogue Assassin and, with his young son (Jet Yung and Bradley Fong at alternate shows), travels the land seeking revenge. However, the addition of a deadly female assassin (an enigmatic and dazzling Ai Ikeda) who has been raised as a weapon since birth by Iyagu to kill her own family, and a capitalist killing venture called Armageddon, Inc. folds in additional layers of epic tragedy, ass-kicking, and political commentary.

Ai Ikeda - Photo by Kenji Mori

Ai Ikeda – Photo by Kenji Mori

Ikeda’s She-Wolf is reminiscent of many a Hong Kong heroine (you know, raised by wolves or weird old men and fated to a path of destruction and great personal loss). Her physical prowess comes from an excellent blend of ballet and wu shu, perhaps more Zhang Ziyi than a young Michelle Yeoh. Her presence, along with Takemi Kitamura (as She-Wolf Sister and other female roles) and the  omniscient and multi-voiced Narrator (in a tour-de-force performance by Marina Celander) evens the gender balance on what can often seem like a boy’s game. Armageddon, Inc. is a coalition of three super-warriors “from the West” gathered by the panicked Shogun (a delightfully pompous Richard Ebihara) to defeat the Lone Wolf/Rogue Assassin. Teake’s nimble, fallen Shaolin monk Bok Mei Lotus, Luca Nicora’s grandiose and flirtatious Colonel Ulysses Sam Armageddon, and Jerry Ford’s terrifying (and, ahem, JACKED!!) Qaseem the Killing Machine are each responsible for some form of genocidal actions in China, the US, or Africa. Along with the bellicose visions of the globe from Armageddon, Inc. where native sons will sell their own into slavery or “kill the savages of all three continents. To spread my brand of freedom,” everyone remains suspect in the unraveling demise of their lives and the lives of those they touch. In this tale, though Iyagu is clearly the diabolical villain, everyone is fallible and held accountable. No one emerges unscathed from an allegiance to the sword.

I asked choreographer Manny Brown and a few members of the cast (I live with two of them, one shares DNA with me) to offer some inside perspectives on the work and Fred.

Fred Ho and Ruth Margraff - Photo by Kenji Mori

Fred Ho and Ruth Margraff – Photo by Kenji Mori

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Emmanuel Brown (Martial Arts Choreographer):

Jerry Ford & Ai Ikeda - Photo by Kenji Mori

Jerry Ford & Ai Ikeda – Photo by Kenji Mori

Congratulations. All of the elements are fantastic, but from a dance perspective, I am so enamored with your crafting of movement. She Wolf’s fabric work evokes my favorite action flicks where female characters often use a chain or their long sleeves as weapons. I love when she jumps off the wall or wraps herself with the fabric. It’s familiar vocabulary used to full live-action potential. All of the fights are so tight and exciting, beautifully composed and clever. Can you talk about your process and inspirations? 

The first thing that I did was go to my big influences….martial arts films. I am particularly a fan of the ones from Hong Kong and Mainland China, but I also had to throw some Japanese sword films in. Of course I also watched Shogun Assassin to get the time, place, and setting into my mind. I also am always creating short martial arts fight sequences in my imagination and this gave me an opportunity to use some of them.

How did you and Yoshi work together choreographically?

Working with Yoshi was quite easy. He pretty much choreographed the fights that he had already created when I wasn’t there yet. As far as me choreographing him in fights, he was very gracious and professional in learning his choreography and he picked it up very quickly. And of course his sword work is so exemplary and he is such a good performer that it made my job a lot easier.

How did you come up with the different movement choices for each of the characters?

Coming up with movements for all of the different characters wasn’t too difficult. First of all, all of the performers bring such a unique sense of movement that it made it easier for me to create for them. Outside of that I just allowed images of the fights into my imagination. Then I would replay it again in my mind with some alterations and take notes on it. Some movements I created as they would come to me during rehearsal.

You were Qaseem in the first version. How did you shift to choreographer?

Yes, I was Qaseem in the presentation that we did at the Japan Society in 2005. I met Fred Ho when he came to see a martial arts play that I was performing in back in 2004. After the show he met me and offered me a spot in his show Voice of the Dragon later that year. The next year he called me to perform in She-Wolf at the Japan Society, which is how I ended up meeting Sonoko. A couple of years later I invited Fred to see a show that I had choreographed, so I guess that was how he found out that I was a fight choreographer. It really was a kind of natural transition for me.

How is this work different from your other projects?

IT IS A FRED HO SHOW! It is different from everything out there. It is a show that has good production value, good creative team, good performers, good fights, good script, good music….It is pretty rare that all of these different elements are on such a high level and come together as well as they do in She-Wolf.

Takemi Kitamura & Ai Ikeda - Photo by Kenji Mori

Takemi Kitamura & Ai Ikeda – Photo by Kenji Mori

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Marina Celander (Narrator):

Ai Ikeda, Jerry Ford & Marina Celander - Photo by Kenji Mori

Ai Ikeda, Jerry Ford & Marina Celander – Photo by Kenji Mori

You have such an incredible load to negotiate. The range of voices and physical shifts is quite the library of material to remember and access and deliver. You bring such bravado, sweetness and diabolical fiendish-ness to the characters. So much of the narrative rests on you, though (as a choreographer) I think there’s plenty of information to be provided in the movement, staging and energy of the performers.

Can you share some thoughts about what it means to be in a work of Fred’s visioning? What you think he means to the field of music or theater or Asian America? To your life as an artist? 

Being in Fred Ho’s work is like writing a paper about something you feel very passionate about and love to discuss, or reading a great, but brainy, book. Not the kind of college paper that is a chore to do—I mean the kind of research or thesis paper that is a deliciously, all-enveloping, all-consuming activity for a period of time, where you get to enjoy going beyond what you thought you knew; where you get to know yourself and what you need and want through the process. You think, criticize, argue, and finally conclude that there is no conclusion, that the end must remain open ended, and what you thought you knew you might no longer know. I love it! It makes me a better person to be part of something “Fred Ho”. It gives me a tiger’s strength. He works harder than anyone I know, and yet his body is sicker than anyone I know. 
 
His forging forward in the arts really is formidable. He tells stories of oppression, of betrayal, and ultimately of survival and change by a new generation of thinkers and doers who refuse to conform to the old ways, through his very own genre of musical/operatic/martial arts theatre. I am truly thankful for his ability in making these kinds of theatrical endeavors using a non-white majority in his cast, as a platform to let the world see us and hear our stories. He makes theatre a place where non-whites are allowed to exist, thrive and shine. This is the kind of art that I want my children to experience and get accustomed to seeing all the time. 
 
What does Fred Ho mean to me and my life as an artist? Right now, he means everything. He gives me opportunities to work where there are very few opportunities to do this kind of oddly satisfying character work. He believes that I can work and be great even though, or perhaps because, I am a single mom. He is not afraid to challenge me with his work, and I am happy to meet his challenge. He pushes me forward, nudges, encourages. 
 
Teake, Luca Nicora & Marina Celander - Photo by Kenji Mori

Richard Ebihara, Luca Nicora, Perry Yung, Teake & Marina Celander – Photo by Kenji Mori

Your physical presence is quite helpful as the constant thread and you move through the space with elegant command. How have you approached the blend of body, voice, and performance? 

 
I am somewhat limited in what voice I can give the characters by the sheer fact that most of the characters are men, and I am a woman. (It is actually not a limitation, but an asset, and a statement for the piece, I believe.) First I have a base for a voice I’d like the character to have, and then all the quirks and flourishes, the details and the fun stuff are developed together with the body of the character, namely my co-actor. The voice still has to come from my body, and since my body is the instrument through which the voice flows, my body and the body of the co-actor have to co-exsist in the same space at the same time. It’s quite a challenge and a crazy process, but in rehearsals I would look at my co-actor the whole time, and follow their movement, their body. I felt as if it was almost like being a piano accompanist for a singer—the accompanist follows and takes cues from the singer. In this case the singer would be my co-actor, and the accompanist would be me. I am sure my co-actors felt like they were the ones constantly listening and taking cues from me, so my analogy might be backwards. But at some point, once we feel “like one”, it is not a singer/accompanist relationship anymore, but a more symbiotic relationship, and co-habitation of one character. The She-Wolf is the only one who gets MY voice, unaffected and without any accent, dialect or odd intonation. 
 
How you do manage all of that material? 
 
I have spent A LOT of time memorizing! There is no magic pill—it’s just relentless and hard work! It helps to internalize moments. I get a lot of the energy for each particular scene from my co-actor, and they help me know where I am when we’re on stage. And last but not least, I love Ruth Margraff’s highly poetic texts. I have had the privilege and honor of speaking her beautiful and deliciously poetic texts before, and they just somehow feel right in my mouth. It is absolutely a HUGE workload to learn and internalize this amount of text with eight characters, and I have anxiety dreams about going on stage and just hit a big, empty, blank spot that goes on forever and ever. But it definitely helps that I absolutely love the words that I am saying.
 
You’ve had an association with this project from early on. How has this incarnation been different from the earlier versions? 
 
The most obvious difference is that the production is bigger. The character developments for each character is more finely tuned, my co-actors and I had more time to really become “like one”, and I have a better grasp of the details, the meanings, and the messages in the story. I have a better perspective on my role as the Narrator in this story than last time. I am a woman, this mysterious personage who knows the past, present and future, and I am telling a story from a male dominated world and context where violence is the only language spoken. The She-Wolf is the only one who has the strength to change the course of history, to change from a path of violence to a path of non-violence, by choosing to finally end an era, and let the Boy live. She cannot save herself, she has too much blood on her hands, but she is the one who has the guts to make the bravest and boldest decision of all: to chose love. Perhaps the She-Wolf and the Narrator are connected in that the Narrator willed the She-Wolf to change the course of history, so that a new future is secured…
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Richard Ebihara (Shogun):
Richard Ebihara - Photo by Kenji Mori

Richard Ebihara – Photo by Kenji Mori

Can you share some thoughts about what it means to be in a work of Fred Ho’s visioning? What you think he means to the field of music or theater or Asian America? To your life as an artist? 
 
Fred Ho’s music is a dramatic locomotive, extremely emotional, powerful and steamy.  But it’s his weaving of his politic and philosophy of what’s right and wrong in this world that fuels this incredibly massive machine and more over, his life. It’s no wonder that his instrument is the baritone sax. To be in a Fred Ho piece you really feel you are truly a part of his essence and soul. You definitely feel you are the pistons and the gears, and not just sitting in the passenger car. You feel all of him: the Asian American him, the Artist him, the Activist him, the Sensei him … It’s all there barebacked and unbridled. It’s an inspiration on so many levels to be with him, let alone apart of his art. I feel truly honored that he allowed me to be a part of this. Just to feel the heat from just ONE glowing coal from Fred Ho’s furnace of a soul, inspires me as an artist, as an Asian American, and as a human being. And makes me realize what I can yet or perhaps should yet accomplish as a part of this world.
What was it like being mainly the dramatic actors (without text) amidst this team of (mostly, younger) martial artists? 
The other actors and I mean ALL the other actors have so much more physically to do on and off the stage than I do. It’s so great to be among all the physical talent and youth of the cast. I’m a little envious in all they can and get to do, but I’ve gratefully embraced my age and role in She-Wolf, amidst all the fumes of tiger balm in the dressing room. They all are so beautiful in their movement and violence, what little i can do dramatically to contribute while on stage I try. It makes you appreciate the little time you have out there and try to fill out and make the most of the text you are given, perhaps too much at times. The textual dance that we have with the Narrator, Marina, adds to the drama. The constant give and take certainly keeps you on your toes and in the moment.
How has your previous work together with Perry Yung (Slant Performance Group, La Mama’s Great Jones Repertory Company, Fred’s other works) informed your process or performances?
Having a history definitely helps with the process and performances. Perry and I have worked together for so long and it allows us to have a certain theatrical comfort on stage and off. The same goes for Marina and the musicians. It makes the challenge of weaving all the components a lot smoother and a lot more fulfilling. And being back at La Mama, and under Ellen’s gaze, is just the perfect PERFECT frame for this piece.
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Perry Yung (Iyagu):

Perry Yung - Photo by Kenji Mori

Perry Yung – Photo by Kenji MoriCan you share some thoughts about what it means to be in a work of his visioning versus other works?

I first saw Fred’s work in San Francisco around the mid 1980’s. I think the piece was called A Chinaman’s Chance. It was a jazz opera about the first Chinese who came to America as indentured servants. The piece explored the challenges these immigrants faced through a hybrid form of Jazz that incorporated traditional Chinese musical instruments and singing. I was studying art at the time and I recalled thinking how amazing the piece was in terms of using both form and content to address issues of racism. It was something I hadn’t really thought about since my art training and practice up until that point was Euro-centric. When I moved in New York City in 1991, it took me ten months to land my first professional gig. I was ecstatic to discover that Fred was the composer. The piece was Havoc in Gold Mountain and was also based on the Chinese American experience. It soon became clear that there was little room in mainstream work for people of color. Very few theater productions would consider casting Asians in roles not written specifically for Asian characters. Ironically, on the opposite side, Asian character roles are often filled by White actors. The Nightingale production at the La Jolla Playhouse in Los Angeles last year is an example of the problems Asian performers still face in America. This is 20 years after Mrs Saigon was boycotted on Broadway for the producer’s choice in casting a white actor in an Asian role. Fred purposely provides opportunities for Asians and other people of color. The cast of Deadly She-Wolf show is multi-racial even though it it s set in Japan. His conceptual framework, sensibility, politics, or what ever you want to call it, greatly influences the choices I make as an artist.

What you think he means to the field of music or theater or Asian America?

Comparatively speaking, the handling of the politics from many, earlier Asian American theater makers were done with kid gloves. Fred’s work is always bare-knuckled. He is not afraid to dig deeply into racism and point fingers. This, of course, is not what most people would regard as a perfect ingredient for art making since art is supposed to make us feel good. To quote Bertolt Brecht, “Art is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Fred’s theatrical works are always infused with healthy doses of incredible powerful music so the medicine is always offered on a tasty spoon and easy to swallow.

To your life as an artist?

From the very first moment I first met Fred, I could feel his intense devotion to his craft—110%. He demands this of his performers. But as much as he demands from us, he demands twice as much from himself. It’s a challenge I welcome to as it makes me a better artist.

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Jet Yung:
Photo by Youn Jung Kim

Photo by Youn Jung Kim

What do you think about being in this show? Do you have any favorite parts or characters? This must be like a dream since you’re always making swords and ninja stars anyway. What is it like working with real ninjas?

I liked when Sonoko talked to me like a real artist and not like a kid. But, I got scared when I had to fight the ninjas in rehearsal one day and just stood there yelling “panic, panic, panic.” The smoke machine is cool. It looks like a dragon is breathing fire. Luca’s [Colonel USA] my favorite because he’s funny, I mean, after dad, of course. And, Yoshi. He’s a good pretend dad.

Yoshi Amao - Photo by Yoon Jung Kim

Yoshi Amao – Photo by Yoon Jung Kim

 

 

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