TORONTO — Through song, dance, and storytelling, Kiki Moritsugu chronicles her liberating journey of self-discovery in A Woman Is… a solo cabaret performance at Toronto Fringe Festival until July 16. Inspired by stories from Moritsugu’s life, she explores her complex relationship with her mother and experiences as a mixed-race performer in a profession (and world) that wants to put a label on her.
Kiki Moritsugu stars in A Woman Is…, running at Toronto Fringe Festival until July 16. Photo credit: Kiki Moritsugu/Toronto Fringe Festival.
Born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, Moritsugu is a performer, dancer, and singer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her career has included theatre, television, film, and music videos, and she has worked on Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, and regional theatres in Toronto and across North America.
The play explores Moritsugu’s complicated relationship with her late, larger-than-life mother, Jo Hutchings, whose career includes performing in the first two Stratford Festivals and a popular French TV drama under the stage name Félixe Fitzgérald. Hutchings studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and was “the classic stereotype of Shakespearean actor,” says Moritsugu.
“When I was tiny, and I would go to see her on stage, it was so exciting to me because she was so beautiful and so glamorous, and I wanted to be just like her,” Moritsugu tells Nikkei Voice in an interview.
The two looked alike, with the same point of their chins or hand gestures as they talked, and Moritsugu was often compared to her mother. Moritsugu wanted to emulate her mother, and as she embarked on an acting career, she found her mother wanted to emulate her too.
“She very much tried to live vicariously through me and sort of shape my life for me. It didn’t leave a lot of room for me to shape my life for me, and it was a lifelong struggle to forge my own identity,” says Moritsugu.
In A Woman Is… Moritsugu expresses her independence as a performer in how she tells her story: through music, song, and dance. Studying ballet school at a young age and musical theatre at Banff School of Fine Arts, dance separated her and her mother’s careers. Moritsugu performed in the Canadian tour of the musical Cats and has worked as an assistant choreographer (including an early iteration of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind) and dance captain on various shows and productions.
But she quit dancing in her early 30s to focus on acting and later to raise her children. When Moritsugu moved to Madison a decade ago, she reunited with an old friend who was choreographing a show and invited her to audition. After a nearly 15-year break, dance became a way to find herself again.
“I realized when I went back [to dancing] that it was such a piece of my identity that I didn’t realize I missed it until I had it back,” says Moritsugu.
Performing A Woman Is… at Toronto Fringe Festival has been a homecoming for Moritsugu. Much of the story takes place in Toronto, and it feels fitting to perform it here now, says Moritsugu.
Moritsugu and her co-writer went through the script to remove parts where Moritsugu explains Canada to American audiences, such as the Stratford Festival, where her mother once performed, or the Toronto Star, which gets a special call out in the show. Her father, retired Star journalist Frank Moritsugu (and long-time Nikkei Voice contributor), was on assignment to interview a successful French language actress from Toronto, which was how her parents first met.
“I have the Toronto Star to thank for my existence, and that’s sort of my origin story. I talk about that and how he’s now 100 and still going,” says Moritsugu.
While the play explores Moritsugu’s search for an identity separate from her mother, she also shares her journey of understanding her identity as a mixed-race Japanese Canadian actor.
Often it felt like she was working in a profession where directors and producers would dictate and decide how Asian she was. In various auditions, she was told she was too tall to be Asian—Moritsugu is five foot six.
“Doing these shows meant that there were white people in charge who decided how you were supposed to be Asian,” says Moritsugu. “I know there have been many, many times where I wasn’t even considered for a role. That double standard where you have to be better than to be considered as good as.”
A Woman Is… premiered in October 2021 and just completed a successful run at World Premiere Wisconsin in May of 2023, where after one show, a young mixed-race woman told Moritsugu it was the first time she had seen herself represented on the stage. Moritsugu was also surprised to hear how many people—not just women—identified with her story.
“While it’s set with me telling stories growing up backstage and all these other things, it still has a universal aspect to it,” says Moritsugu. “It’s the pieces about the parent and child relationship where you realize these are complicated relationships.”
Moritsugu’s mother passed away in 2003, and she explores death and grief in the play. Moritsugu acknowledges that this play is something she probably could not have done while her mother was alive.
“In a lot of ways, my mother’s death allowed me to find myself, which I wasn’t able to while she was still alive. And while that’s really too bad that is the case—and my siblings’ experiences are completely different—this is solely my own experience,” says Moritsugu. “I get to become myself, and I want to celebrate that. Ultimately it’s a story that ends on an optimistic note, pointing towards the future.”
At the beginning of this project, co-writer Danielle Dresden asked Moritsugu what she hoped to achieve by sharing her stories.
“I realized as we were going along, while it’s a journey of my growing up and what [my mother’s] influence on me did for me all of these years, it’s also about what I want for my children’s futures as a parent myself,” says Moritsugu.
Both of Moritsugu’s children have been performing in school plays, theatres, and even alongside Moritsugu in musical productions. Now her oldest is in university, and her youngest just graduated high school in June, she wants her children to have the space to embark on their journeys of self-discovery.
“I’ve grown up in the shadow of a glamorous mother, and I want my kids to be able to get out from under my shadow,” says Moritsugu.
A Woman Is… runs at Tank House Theatre in Toronto until July 16. For tickets and more information, visit the Toronto Fringe Festival website. Watch a preview of A Woman Is… below: