When playwright Julia Izumi’s ‘Meet Murasaki Shikibu Followed by Book Signing, and Other Things‘ hits the stage at Philadelphia’s Drake Theatre space, the witty historical dramedy puts a spotlight on saving independent bookstores, as well as the adventures of 11th Century Japanese novelist-poet Murasaki Shikibu, author of ‘The Tale of Genji’, one of the world’s first novels.
Produced and staged by Philly’s Tiny Dynamite, directed by Cat Ramirez and starring Kimie Muroya, Lexi Thammavong, and Makoto Hirano, ‘Meet Murasaki Shikibu’ is explosive from start to finish, from its smart, proactive tone to its provocative finale with the detailed rarity of men’s kimonos, created from painted paper by costume designer Asaki Kuruma.
“As a Japanese-American artist, not having known about Shikibu’s having written the first-ever novel was embarrassing,” said choreographer-actor Hirano. “This play is fictional, but Shikibu’s importance to the culture and to the art of writing is very real.”
Fitting into the play’s female narrative, the play’s lone male, Hirano (who plays several parts), acts in service to its women.
“Going forward with such service changes how I view my work as a choreographer and as a performer in regard to other characters – the characters in this play and the women in the room.”
Muroya seconds Hirano’s emotion, adding that the play’s “most beautiful scenes between two Asian women, conversations that were new and fresh,” were something that she has never embraced on the stage prior to this production.
“Playing Asian characters such as this is exciting to me. There is so little known about Murasaki Shikibu, other than that this is not her real name and few theories as to its origins. But she wrote, which was incredible for a woman at that time… with an education given her to that was traditionally male. She broke gender norms…. And women are steering this ship. There is confidence and growth within that.”
Thammavong, whose role is the book seller playing host to this “1,000-year-old ghost taking human form,” was stricken by the impact of meaning and narrative that ‘Meet Murasaki Shikibu’ packs into its time on stage while still maintaining levity and wit.
“There is so much humor, joy and social commentary to be found here – some of it even silly, until it becomes heart-wrenching,” she said. “That balance is masterful, as the play discusses how our bodies hold the memories of our past, of our ancestors long forgotten, and what that means to you.”
Claiming Asian female exceptionalism as part of its narrative, Thammavong states how crucial the existence of ‘Meet Murasaki Shikibu’ is to the theater canon and to women.
“We pay respect to all of the stories and all of the ancestors who have been erased,” she said. “Murasaki stated in the play that she wrote a male protagonist because men could do so much more in her time – needing a male vehicle, however, is a hard thing to grapple with.
“There is something bittersweet and fierce that her legacy lived through all that. At that time, women had to go through the patriarchy and the male gaze in order to be somebody – someone’s sister, someone’s mother. But this woman, Murasaki Shikibu, defied all expectation. Now, we have the opportunity for reflection on that, and to center her legacy going forward the best that we can.”
‘Meet Murasaki Shikibu Followed by Book Signing, and Other Things’ will be on stage at Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, from June 7-18. For information and tickets, visit tinydynamite.org