- God Bless Baseball by Toshiki Okada
On December 28, 2015, just one month before the Chicago opening of God Bless Baseball, South Korea and Japan reached a “landmark” agreement on the compensation for Korean “comfort women,” or the victims of Japanese military sex slavery during World War II. Secretary of State John Kerry hoped the agreement between the two important allies would work in favor of the United States against rivals like China. Yet, the omission of the victims at the negotiating table suggests that this act was more about state interests and diplomatic convenience than redress for the violence inflicted upon so many bodies. In that sense, Toshiki Okada’s new play, God Bless Baseball, was a timely presentation of a complicated diplomatic situation. Commissioned by multiple public organizations, including the new Asian Arts Complex in South Korea, the play seeks to understand the entanglement of these nations via personal memories that materialize in baseball, a sport popularly enjoyed in all three countries. Invoking Irving Berlin’s patriotic 1918 song “God Bless America,” the title suggests the sport’s symbolic capacity to represent US hegemony, with the United States imagined as both umpire and father figure, and South Korea and Japan as the players and two brothers. However, the politics of framing the three states’ relationship in a homosocial kinship was largely left unquestioned, repeating the omission of “minor” voices incommensurate with official historical moments. The question is whether Okada still managed to recuperate the “minor” through other opportunities created in the play’s relationship with history, corporeality, and the audience.
Not set in a specific time or place and not relying upon a linear narrative arc, God Bless Baseball wove together individuals’ baseball-related memories narrated by two Korean and two Japanese actors that intersected with larger historical events, some funny and others devastating. Two projection screens reminiscent of scoreboards displayed the Japanese, Korean, and English subtitles for Korean actors Sunghee Wi and Yoonjae Lee and Japanese actors Aoi Nozu and Pijin Neji. The language switching and subtitling complicated any easy ethno-national identification of each actor. An omniscient, disem-bodied male voice (Jerome Young) from a white dodecagonal hanging shell (also in the shape of an umbrella canopy) narrated major historical moments and acted simultaneously as the American pater ex machina who responded to crises among the actors. The performance began with a Korean woman (Nozu) and another woman of unknown nationality (Wi) raising questions about the fundamental elements of baseball. It was not so much their gender as their disposition and choreographic movements that complicated the dynamic of the production; their awkwardly hanging arms or legs suspended precariously in the air further called attention to their skepticism of baseball. This duo was joined by a Japanese man (Lee), who professed that he hated baseball though he did not question its authority, an outcome of his repressed frustration with his baseball-obsessed father. Finally joining the three was Nichiro (Neji), a joker-like character named after a YouTube impersonator of the former New York Yankee outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
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The actors’ ability to make their bodily movements visible was a testament to their agency and willful insertion of their own footprints within the larger historical narratives. For example, whereas butoh-trained Neji’s ability to control the elasticity of his limbs could convincingly lure the actors into believing that a bat can become part of the body, Wi’s and Nozu’s loose arms and constrained torso movements were initially directionless. Their ability [End Page 453] became more visible and stronger, however, as the actors began to connect their personal histories to a larger international one. Wi’s repeated swing-and-miss attempts illustrated her changing movements, with which she simultaneously cried “You are discouraging us!” and “You are encouraging us!” against Young’s voice nonchalantly enumerating the International Monetary Fund’s neoliberal...