Fred Ho’s “Deadly She Wolf” at La Mama
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.
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.
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.
Emmanuel Brown (Martial Arts Choreographer):
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.
Marina Celander (Narrator):
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?
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?
Perry Yung (Iyagu):
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.
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.
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.
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.