- A Cage of Fireflies by Daniel Akiyama
The extended, sold-out run of the world premiere of Daniel Akiyama’s A Cage of Fireflies demonstrated the importance of staging Asian American immigrant experiences for Honolulu’s diverse audiences. Developed partly at the 2012 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Fireflies launched Akiyama’s career and affirmed his commitment to staging the depths of Okinawan culture in contemporary Hawai‘i. Akiyama’s play relates the stories of two Okinawan women as they confront a lifetime of accumulated angst decades after immigrating to Hawai‘i. Examining how immigrants negotiate dynamic cultural identities, the play also demonstrates how theatrical realism can highlight the unseen emotional consequences of cultural conformity. Drawing out and dramatizing the extensive subtext implied by the script, Fireflies examined these challenges through the actors’ compelling physical performances within a detailed material environment rich with the sounds and images of everyday life.
Fireflies focuses on how three Okinawan sisters negotiate their cultural identities in Hawai‘i. The oldest and youngest sisters, Yukiko and Kimiko, have chosen to isolate themselves from the material world outside their apartment, stifling any possibility of starting over in their host country, while the middle sister, Mitsuko, has broken from tradition to embrace Hawaiian American culture. Yukiko has entirely rejected English, Hawai‘i’s landscape, and any experiences other than sewing clothes for Mitsuko’s family, and she has forced Kimiko to do the same. Her refusal to accept any cultural aspect of her host country both suffocates Kimiko’s dream of enjoying a life in Hawai‘i and emotionally distances the two of them from Mitsuko. However, Yukiko’s and Kimiko’s fragile world cracks when Mitsuko asks them to store the family kimonos in their apartment. Kimiko and Yukiko mend and clean the kimonos for preservation, keeping the past intact, but Mitsuko disappoints them by taking most of the kimonos to an artist who cuts and frames them for display. By the play’s end, each sister has followed a unique path: Mitsuko and her family sell their business and move to a Honolulu suburb; Yukiko accepts the limitations of her weakened heart; and Kimiko attempts to create something new out of the last kimono as a compromise between the old and the new. Whether willingly or not, each sister ultimately accepts her future in Hawai‘i.
Akiyama conveys many of these cultural tensions through inferences in the text. To articulate these subtle meanings, Phyllis S. K. Look and her cast choreographed specific body gestures to represent each sister’s rigid compliance to Okinawan customs. The sisters’ deference to one another and their respective positions informed not only their relationships, but also highlighted the tensions between Okinawan and contemporary Hawaiian cultures. For example, Yukiko expects to be treated with respect as the oldest—an Okinawan custom that Kimiko willingly observes. However, as the only married sister, Mitsuko is the symbolic “eldest”—an inversion that has unforeseen consequences. Mitsuko gives the kimonos to her sisters for permanent storage, but Yukiko insists that Mitsuko, as the symbolic eldest, is responsible for preserving the past, and demands that she take the kimonos back home. Constrained both by the expectations of a younger sister and the responsibilities of the eldest, Mitsuko is simultaneously unable to stand up to Yukiko and unwilling to assume responsibility for the kimonos. Her solution to bypass the responsibility by altering their function both transforms the kimonos into artwork and destroys the legacy they represent.
The actors conveyed the angst of this power struggle through folded hands, bowed heads, rigid shoulders, and stiff spines. Karen Yamamoto Hackler (Mitsuko) was particularly adept at portraying the tension between showing respect and pursuing her goals. She alternately spoke too casually to her sisters or reacted to Yukiko’s rigid stance by squaring her own shoulders, dropping her smile, or bowing her head. Such actions portrayed not only Mitsuko’s conflicting emotions, but also marked the intercultural borders of Hawai‘i and Okinawa at the threshold of her sisters’ apartment.
The physicality of the production, including...