When you enter the theater at The Bushwick Starr, you’ll see a stage strewn with ornate, antique furniture, and the walls covered in painted vertical stripes and various shades of pink teardrop-like shapes. The set evokes a sense of claustrophobia. Amidst the chaos on stage, a pale blue light focuses on a painting of Mount Fuji that appears to glow.
This sets up the opening of Kristine Haruna Lee’s “Suicide Forest,” which has extended its sold-out run at The Bushwick Starr. The play takes place in 1990s Japan and chronicles a teenage girl coming to grips with her sexuality in a “nightmarish, male-defined society.” The characters– including a suicidal, perverted salaryman and his Lolita-fied teenage daughters– intentionally portray stereotypes of the culture. But when the fourth wall breaks, “this nightmare-vision play about Japanese-American identity cracks wide open,” per the New York Times review, “and what’s underneath is so heart-stingingly tender and explicitly personal that the whole work shifts.”
When director Aya Ogawa received the first manuscript her first reaction was repulsion. It wasn’t the quality of the writing that evoked this visceral reaction, but the content of the play. And while it disturbed Ogawa, the story also portrays an intimate and beautiful setting to explore themes of grappling with identity; specifically, the complexities of the Japanese-American experience.
With two nights remaining of the show’s run, Ogawa talked with Bedford + Bowery about the collaborative process with Lee, the success of the show and bringing a work to life after two years in the making.
In August of 2016 Kristine reached out to me and said she’d written this play called “Suicide Forest” inspired by Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play “Funnyhouse of a Negro.” Her play had been part of a stage reading series at Bushwick Starr and she was looking for a director to stage it. I have never taken someone else’s text and brought it into full production but we started talking about the play and ourselves and evolved the script overtime. It’s very different now than that first draft sent to me.
Kristine and I both have very similar backgrounds. We’re both Japanese-American and we discussed the dissection and reflection of the Japanese-American experience. What does it mean to adopt those multiple identities? Kristine calls it “erasure,” meaning growing up we found ourselves in primarily white environments and we deeply had to internalize our racism or hatred of ourselves in order to just survive– there’s an unpacking of that which the play really explores and the intergenerational healing that occurs along with that.
The first script was completely in English. One of the observations I had was the language felt like a translation. There was a dissonance in the text, which felt like it had been filtered or translated, even though I know Kristine’s primary language is English. I knew it would be simple to cast Asian-American actors in this play but if we really wanted to press into the dissonance of the language in her text I wanted to cast Japanese heritage actors. They could tackle the text and see if there was something interesting there– see what happens when they tap into their native language. Incorporating Japanese into the text became a very organic process and fit in naturally.
It’s very perplexing. There’s been an incredible response to the show. We’ve got amazing co-producers with us, John Del Gaudio and Denise Shu Mei, who have done fantastic work promoting and engaging with the play. Of course, Kristine is a huge draw and darling of the downtown theater scene. But the play was sold out before it even premiered and I’m worried there might be a layer of fetishization with the content. I’m not entirely sure… so yes, it’s wonderful to be sold out but it makes me a bit suspicious.
I really feel like that’s up to the audience and people will connect with the material in different ways. My hope is that they see the wealth and depth of experiences that this production is speaking to and find their own way into it.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the name of one of the producers.