Starring (left to right)Brenda Kamino, Yoshié Bancroft, Hanako Brierley, Dawn Obokata, and Katelyn Morishita as Kiyoko, Mizushōbai (The Water Trade) runs at Segal Centre in Montreal from Oct. 10 to 22. Presented by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, the play was written and created by Julie Tamiko Manning. Photo credit: AJ Korkidakis.
MONTREAL — In Julie Tamiko Manning‘s new play, Mizushōbai (The Water Trade), five Nikkei actors bring the incredible story of one Japanese Canadian woman to life.
The play explores the life of Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto, a Japanese picture bride who became a successful “underground” businesswoman in Vancouver during the 1930s. Mizushōbai tells her story not just as a dutiful daughter and wife, cliched dragon-lady madam, or submissive and sexualized female Asian body but as a person who challenged expectations and authority for recognition and autonomy.
To capture and express Tanaka-Goto’s multi-faceted story, creator Manning wanted to bring in an all-female Nikkei lead cast representing an array of ages, experiences, and backgrounds. The actors’ ages range from 20 to 70 and come from Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal.
“I wanted to have as many Japanese women on stage as possible because if the idea is to break any kind of stereotype of a Japanese woman, you want to have as many different bodies and spirits on stage as possible,” Manning tells Nikkei Voice in an interview.
“I wanted to show the diversity of Japanese female identity. I also wanted to show the different facets of Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto because we are not just one thing. We’re multiple things at the same time. And I really wanted to show that as much as she was a dutiful daughter and sent money back to Japan, she was also a rebellious and stubborn daughter who left Japan and left her family there and created something here by herself.”
Starring Yoshié Bancroft, Hanako Brierley, Brenda Kamino, Katelyn Morishita, and Dawn Obokata as Kiyoko and directed by Yvette Nolan, the play runs at Segal Centre in Montreal from Oct. 10 to 22. Presented by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, the play was written and created by Sansei Julie Tamiko Manning.
Manning is an award-winning Montreal-based actor and theatre creator, the co-artistic director of Tashme Productions, and associate artistic producer of Metachroma Theatre. She has 30 years of experience performing nationally and internationally, and Mizushōbai is the third play she has written.
“I started to write not because I wanted to be a writer, but because I felt like I had to be a writer if I were going to create any roles for myself on stage, and at the same time, I also wanted to create roles for other people who were like me, other Japanese and Asian women,” says Manning.
Too often, there is no space in Canadian theatre for actors from marginalized communities unless they can fill a certain, often stereotypical, role. It has been meaningful to uplift and create space for young Japanese Canadian actors and work with others she admired throughout her career.
“Brenda Kamino and Dawn Obokata, who, when I graduated from theatre school, were the only Japanese Canadian women that existed as theatre performers. I have always looked up to them, so I’m super excited and absolutely honoured that they are doing a piece of work I [created].”
Manning divides Tanaka-Goto’s story into five parts, with each actor portraying a different version of Tanaka-Goto and sharing memories and experiences from that part of her life.
First is “Kiyoko” the dutiful daughter, born in Tokyo in 1896. Her father left to work in San Francisco, and when he realized her mother did not want to come to America, he stopped sending money back to the family. The two returned to her mother’s hometown of Kyushu and worked hard to survive. In 1916, Kiyoko came to Canada as a picture bride, living on Vancouver Island with a husband she had never met and working long days on the farm.
“Mama Kay” is another part of Tanaka-Goto’s life. The back-breaking farm life on Vancouver Island was not what she hoped for in Canada, so after saving up, she moved to Vancouver, where she bought a restaurant with three other women. Over the years, she ran various not-strictly-legal businesses, such as making liquor and owning brothels.
Next is “Enemy Alien Kiyo,” who, during the war, resisted internment and hid from authorities for six months, says Manning. Eventually, she was caught and served jail time in Oakalla Prison before being interned in Greenwood.
Postwar is “Okiyo-san,” who settled back in Vancouver and ran gambling clubs, but business would never be the same as before the war. And finally, there is “Ki,” a post-death Tanaka-Goto.
Manning learned about Tanaka-Goto through a performance project with the Powell Street Festival Society. When Mathieu Murphy-Perron, artistic director of Tableau D’Hôte Theatre in Montreal, approached Manning to write a play about an overlooked Canadian historical figure, she knew she wanted to explore Tanaka-Goto’s story further.
Manning worked from an interview of Tanaka-Goto by Maya Koizumi from the 70s. Entirely in Japanese, Tanaka-Goto, now a woman in her 70s, reflects on her life. Manning commissioned artist and performer Ayumi Goto, whom she worked with on the Powell Street Festival project, to translate the interview. Manning also interviewed Japanese Canadians who knew Tanaka-Goto later in life, such as through Tonari Gumi.
Everything in the play is based on Tanaka-Goto’s interviews or stories others shared about her. But like many stories from the past, they change over time and are remembered differently by different people. Reflecting this, the five versions of Tanaka-Goto in the play argue and talk over each other as they recount their story.
“I don’t stray from anything that’s not, either, a story that I heard about her through the community or from the interview,” says Manning.
“But, like in her interview, she’s inconsistent, either because she can’t remember something or she doesn’t want to say a direct truth. So I try to keep that sense, that feeling of inconsistency, in the same way that we remember things in different ways, and we create stories for ourselves, whether it’s to cover up how we’re really feeling or because we actually don’t remember and might tell things in a different way.”
The building that once was home to one of Tanaka-Goto’s businesses is now Funky Winker Beans, a legendary punk rock haven, which feels fitting considering the person she was. Tanaka-Goto broke conventions, stereotypes, and expectations for her as a Japanese woman. Her story is a Nikkei story we’ve never heard before. She was a historical “punk,” says Manning.
Manning hopes the play will highlight the importance of listening and witnessing overlooked stories in history. Women who work in sex work often are diminished to being just that, and while it may be the most salacious part of Tanaka-Goto’s story, she was so much more. People are multi-faceted and have a lifetime of stories behind them. They are not just the one thing that they present,” says Manning.
“I was really inspired by her sort of stubbornness and her independence…it really kind of broke my impression of what a Japanese woman from that time would be. She was not lady-like, she was not submissive, she was none of those cliche words that we use, or society uses for Asian women,” says Manning.
“I was really excited by that because I feel like my whole life I’ve been fighting to turn this sort of exotic image of what a Japanese woman is around because I am none of those things, but I am still Japanese, so I was really inspired by another facet of Japanese femininity.”
Mizushōbai runs at Segal Centre in Montreal from Oct. 10 to 22. Click here for tickets and showtimes.