Brenda Wong Aoki

Full-Evening Projects

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“Aoki encompasses the comic and the tragic making relevant and magical even the most faraway tales” 

– Los Angeles Times, Critics Choice

Brenda Wong Aoki is a playwright and multi-disciplinary theatre artist. She is an accomplished actor, anthologized writer, and Founder/Co-Artistic Director of First Voice in San Francisco.  Known for her agility across disciplines, she creates monodramas for symphony, dance, solo performance, taiko & jazz ensembles.

Brenda’s long time collaborator is her husband EMMY Award Winning composer Mark Izu. Aoki’s plays, librettos and monodramas have been produced worldwide and include: Mermaid  (1997) Torrance and Berkeley symphonies commissioned by Kent Nagano. Kuan-yin: Our Lady of Compassion (2002) Hong Kong Cultural Center, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Esplanade in Singapore, directed by Shu Wing Tang and featured Gagaku master Togi Suenobu, No Way Out, Jefferson Starship’s, Best Music Video of the Year. Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend, (1998, 2002,2007) originally directed by Diane Rodriguez with dramaturgical support from Luis Alfaro, Joan Shirle and Joan Holden, was developed with the San Jose Rep, the Dell Arte Players Company and was the American representative to the Adelaide International Festival in Australia. It is featured in the KTVU documentary San Francisco in the 1920’s.  The Queen’s Garden (1992, 2011) Climate Theater & San Diego Repertory Theater and was published in Contemporary Plays by Women of Color  (Routledge Press, London).  Obake: Tales of Spirits Past and Present  (1998, 2005) was presented at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway at the New Victory Theater.   Random Acts,Dallas Theater Center, was directed by Amy Mueller and toured nationally.  The Soul of the Great Bell (1985) San Jose Taiko and Legend of Morning Glory, a story given to her by Pete Seeger(2009) Maze Daiko are works Aoki wrote for Taiko ensemble.  Return of the Sun (2009) Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco was commissioned by the Ethnic Dance Festival and was a work Aoki & Izu created for dance ensembles from Korea, India, Peru and Mexico. Aoki & Izu’s Kabuki Cabarets (2010, 2011) have been presented at the San Jose Jazz Festival, Kuumbwa, and Yoshi’s.

One of America’s premiere storytellers, Aoki performs regularly at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough TN. She is the featured storyteller in Oral Tradition Through Time Houghton Mifflin/ McDougal-Littell. Brenda’s book, Mermaid Meat the Secret to Immortality was published in 2009. Her monodramas are included in the book Extreme Exposure (Theater Communications Group, New York 2000) edited by Jo Bonney. A recording artist, she is a former Governor for the NARAS and championed a new Grammy category for Spoken Word. Her recordings have won INDIE awards and she has recorded with Anthony Brown, Christopher Yohmei Blaisdel and Basque composer, Kepa Junkera and Mark Izu.

In 2013, Aoki received the Inspirational Leadership in the Performing Arts award from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. She has been awarded a U.S.-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship, two NEA Solo Theater Fellowships, ASCAP Plus Awards, Critic’s Circle Award, four Hollywood Drama-logue awards and two INDIE Awards for Best Spoken Word recordings. Her work has been commissioned by the U.S. Congressional Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, the Dramatist Guild, the Asian Arts Council, the Japan Foundation, the MAP Fund, San Francisco Arts Commission, the California Arts Council, the Zellerbach Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

A curriculum developer and educator, Aoki is a founding faculty member of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University and has been an artist in residence in universities here and abroad. Her plays are archived at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Brenda has deep roots in San Francisco. Her grandfather was a founder of Japantown in the 1890’s, and her grandmother was a leader of the first Chinatown garment union. She lives in San Francisco with her husband & partner Mark Izu and their son Kai Kane Aoki Izu.

 

TOURING PROJECTS: 

The following performances are currently being offered for touring.

 

TAIKO TALES 

with Brenda, Mark and taiko master Kenny Endo

  Three artists in the vanguard of cultural metamorphosis, the haunting eloquence of Brenda Wong Aoki, subtle tones of iron & silk by contra bass/sho player Mark Izu and the dynamic range and global pulse of Taiko master Kenny Endo. Repertoire: • Black Hair – a samurai, a wife’s magnificent hair, a date with death • Soul of the Great Bell – an evil emperor, the soul of a people and the sound of sorrow • Dancing in California – the last dance of a ballerina incarcerated in a WWII prison camp • The Bell of Dojoji – a tale from the Kabuki of a maiden & monk transformed by passion • Mermaid Meat – an erotic tale of a girl who eats the flesh of a mermaid Commissioned by:  Rockefeller Foundation, Japan Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts 60-minute School Matinee:  Folk stories from Japan, China, Cambodia and California Residency Activities, Master Class, Workshops: • Theater • Music • Dance • Interdisciplinary / Interdepartmental workshops • Business • Community outreach to disadvantaged youth, storytelling guilds, local taiko dojos

 

Three artists in the vanguard of cultural metamorphosis, the haunting eloquence of Brenda Wong Aoki, subtle tones of iron & silk by contra bass/sho player Mark Izu and the dynamic range and global pulse of Taiko master Kenny Endo.

Repertoire:
 Black Hair – a samurai, a wife’s magnificent hair, a date with death
• Soul of the Great Bell – an evil emperor, the soul of a people and the sound of sorrow
 Dancing in California – the last dance of a ballerina incarcerated in a WWII prison camp
• The Bell of Dojoji – a tale from the Kabuki of a maiden & monk transformed by passion
• Mermaid Meat – an erotic tale of a girl who eats the flesh of a mermaid

Commissioned by:  Rockefeller Foundation, Japan Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts

60-minute School Matinee:  
Folk stories from Japan, China, Cambodia and California

Residency Activities, Master Class, Workshops:
• Theater
• Music
• Dance
• Interdisciplinary / Interdepartmental workshops
• Business
• Community outreach to disadvantaged youth, storytelling guilds, local taiko dojos

 

Tales from the Pacific Rim

Duet Mark and Brenda

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Award winning tales from the Asia and the Pacific Rim for the whole family.

  • Twilight Crane - traditional Japanese tale of Crane Maiden
  • Monkey Defeats Death - Chinese Tale of the Monkey King
  • Auntie Anna - Hawaiian Auntie talks story
  • Why Some People are Left Handed - Hmong story about the Big Black Bird
  • The Mirror - Korean tale
  • Grandpa - California tale of Chinese Immigrant

TOURING PROJECTS CONTINUED: 

 

Kabuki Jazz Cabaret:

Japanese Ghost Legends

The haunting eloquence of Brenda Wong Aoki's ghost stories Masterfully performed in concert with Asian Jazz pioneer composer Mark Izu, Featuring the thunder drums of Janet Koike & PJ Hirabayashi, Multi-percussionisteast-west jazz veteran Anthony Brown Koto extraordinaire Shoko Hikage and Mas Koga on sax and soulful shakuhachi. Stories include both old and new works by Brenda.

 

PRESS COMMENTS:

“In the five plus decades I have watched dance theatre, such versatility is rare. Such power and restraint are also seldom seen in these decades of lengthy self-indulgence. Yoko Tahara, familiar with the Japanese Ghost tradition, remarked, "It was a tour de force." For myself, I said to her, "I've seen only one other woman who could evoke the masculine with equal skill, and that was Balasaraswati.”

– Renee Renouf, UK Ballet

 

"...Aoki's remarkable talents as a performer and storyteller - talents which include an impressive synthesis of modern and traditional Japanese and American theatrical techniques of dance, mime, movement, song and voice placement..."

– Hollywood Drama-Logue

 

 

Love and Passion

Duet Mark and Brenda. 90 minutes

Stories (subject to change):

Black Hair – A Good Wife, A Good Heart, A Greedy Man

Soul of the Great Bell – An Evil Emperor Gets His Just Reward

Dancing in Califor nia – Last Dance Of A Ballerina Inside A WWII Internment Camp

The Bell of Dojoji – Sweet Girl Transforms Into A Brilliant Serpent

Mermaid Meat – a Fisherman a Mermaid and the Secret to Immortality

 

PRESS:

In the five plus decades I have watched dance theatre, such versatility is rare. Such power and restraint are also seldom seen in these decades of lengthy self- indulgence. Yoko Tahara, familiar with the Japanese Ghost tradition, remarked, “It was a tour de force.” For myself, I said to her, “I’ve seen only one other woman who could evoke the masculine with equal skill, and that was Balasaraswati.”

– Renee Renouf, UK Ballet

 

 

Uncle Gunjiro's Girlfirend-

A Tale of Forbidden Love -Miscegeny!

Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu perform Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend  - a duet for storyteller and acoustic bass. This dramatic performance about forbidden love incorporates Victorian Japanese photographs and authentic yellow peril newspaper articles from the early 1900’s. Aoki is accompanied by award winning composer and musician Izu with his haunting original score.

Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend is a true story of forbidden passion, and evolved from Aoki’s personal quest to uncover her family’s darkest secret. After San Francisco’s 1906 Great Earthquake, Brenda Wong Aoki’s great uncle Gunjiro, son of a legendary samurai, fell in love with Helen Gladys Emery, the daughter of the Archdeacon of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.  Their announced engagement sparked the anti-Asian miscegenation laws, made headlines across the United States, provoked public outrage, including death threats, and resulted in the loss of Ms. Emery’s citizenship.Following the lovers and their descendents for three generations, Aoki explores the legacy of shame and the ultimate triumph of love 100 years later.  

Archival photographs, newspaper headlines and video create a montage of large screen projections woven into the performance by multimedia artist Martha Chono-Helsey. Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend is a First Voice Production, a non-profit arts group dedicated to creating and perpetuating the music and stories of people caught between worlds.  For more information contact: www.firstvoice.org

Read full article published in the Marin Independent Journal WEEKEND.