New Play Shows Rice Farmers' Lives

Two families in the US and Japan find similarities in the struggle to keep old farming ways. CROSS-CULTURAL MUSICAL

DEPICTING human dreams and sorrows, the musical "Labor of Love" sheds light on down-to-earth lives of farmers in both Japan and the United States who harvest rice.Oblivious of intergovernmental trade frictions and official tensions, the cross-cultural play shows an increasing friendship between rice-growing families in the two countries. Co-produced by Furusato Caravan, a theater group in Tokyo, and One Reel, a Seattle-based events production company, "Labor of Love" boldly stages the trials and joys of the two country's farmers and their efforts to understand each other. The play centers on two multigenerational rice-farming families, the Meaux clan in Louisiana and the Suzuki clan in Tohoku, Japan. The Suzukis visit the Meauxs to bring home their son, Kenichi, who has been working with the Meauxs to learn about US rice farming. The Suzukis are also enthusiastic about taking Alicia Meaux as their new daughter-in-law, only to find out later that Alicia has a fiance and Kenichi's love was one-sided. After the misunderstandings and embarrassments, the two families learn to cooperate when a storm hits town. Through the growth of friendship between the two families, Alicia comes to Japan to stay with the Suzukis. The latter part of the play is full of music and dancing. The Meauxs come to Japan for a visit and join the village festival (matsuri) with Mardi Gras costumes, while Alicia dances in Kagura, an annual dance dedicated to the village's guardian deity. Behind the festive mood, however, the musical tells of harsh realities facing today's rice farmers. Traditional labor is losing out to the logic of economic efficiency. Village populations are declining due to a lack of incentives to continue growing rice. And children, like Kenichi, are abandoning the fields to find work in town. In the musical, the two families grow to understand and identify with each other's joys and sorrows, and most of all, acknowledge how they both love their job. "Despite the differences in language and culture, the rice farmers in both countries are faced with similar difficulties," says Katsuhiko Ishizuka, director of Furusato Caravan, "neither can survive without subsidies. I wanted to show the plight they are in and how much these farmers in both countries love their land and rice farming, which cannot be measured in economic terms" he says. Accompanied by a live band, "Labor of Love" is an energetic show. The music, produced by Chad Henry and Takeo Teramoto, is a mixture of Cajun music and Japanese festival music. As furusato means hometown in Japanese, Furusato Caravan specializes in local topics. Established in 1983, the theater group is known for staging popular musicals featuring local dances and music. "I was impressed by their energy tap dancing in rubber boots," recalls Norman Langell, president of One Reel, who saw Furusato Caravan perform during a visit to Japan three years ago. Invited by Langell to tour the US, director Ishizuka suggested creating an original play between the two countries, the first of its kind. THE timely topic of rice was not in the initial plan. "We first thought of taking up apple growers in Washington," Ishizuka says, "It wasn't until we found Louisiana's Cajun music to fit with our company's use of local festival music that we came up with rice farming." With the coordination of One Reel, the US actors and musicians were selected through auditions held in Seattle and Louisiana. The members of this team have experienced the difficulties of intercultural communications first hand. "Far from achieving mutual understanding, we constantly faced cultural frictions," a spokeswoman for Furusato Caravan says. "The making of this play was truly a labor of love." The play is cleverly done in two languages. Some characters are bilingual to an extent. They play the role of translators among the characters and to the audience, but their subtle mistranslations lead to absurd misunderstandings between the cultures. At other points, stage assistants dressed in black carry the translation written on a big wooden balloon, a familiar sight for Japanese who grew up reading comics. During its planning stages, skepticism surrounded the play because it directly confronts the controversial issue of rice trade. But the actual stage production manages to dissipate friction with humor and innocence. It does not end with an ideal resolution. Having expressed stereotypical sentiments toward each other, and having gone through misunderstandings and differences, the two families part with an agreement to disagree. Though the production values may be of a lesser quality, the show's vitality compensates.

'Labor of Love' has played in 11 Japanese cities, and will begin touring the US starting Aug. 30 in Seattle. It will visit 10 cities in Washington, California, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana.

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