- God Bless Baseball by Okada Toshiki
A Korean-speaking man (Lee Yoon Jae) repeatedly loses his train of thought as he tries to explain to two women (Wi Sung Hee and Nozu Aoi) the rules of baseball. The terms that confuse the women are second nature to him: inning, strike, out, first base, home plate. But knowing something does not mean you can explain it. This idea, introduced in the comic opening, ran throughout Okada Toshiki’s God Bless Baseball, presented by the Japan Society as part of the Public Theatre’s Under the Radar Festival. Despite the everyday feel, reminiscent of a weekend morning at the neighborhood park, the performance underscored the difficulty of communication. Although none of the characters seemed to notice, the performance jumped between Korean and Japanese. A pair of projection screens displayed subtitles at all times in one of the two languages plus English, calling attention to the many levels of translation and approximation (Fig. 1). Added to this was the bizarre body language of the laborious choreography, the actors warping their bodies into uncomfortable positions in ways that turned the mundane act of explaining the sport into a strangely tense endeavor.
Audiences familiar with Okada’s work in two previous invitations to Under the Radar would have recognized the hyper-colloquial language and defamiliarizing physicality as his signature. They marked the triptych of one-acts, Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech (2012), performed by Okada’s own theatre company chelfitsch, and Zero Cost House (2013), a collaboration with Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company. The latter work was a decisive shift, overtly voicing social concerns (the Fukushima nuclear disaster) in contrast to the disillusioned apathy of earlier plays such as Five Days in March and Enjoy, both produced by American companies in New York in 2010. Whether in Japanese or in English translation, Okada’s hilariously contorted dialogue encapsulates contemporary youth culture even beyond a Japanese context. Jason Zinoman (2010), reviewing the English-language production of Enjoy for the New York Times, noted that Okada can “capture the way hipsters talk in Williamsburg, as well as in Tokyo.” God Bless Baseball, on the other hand, is about the specificity and untranslatability of cultural contexts. This was not only his most political production to date, but also painfully straightforward with its metaphors. Halfway through the performance, one of the women (Wi) stated without irony that everything onstage was “an allegory of reality.”
The God Bless Baseball program (2016) noted that this international collaborative project explores “the relationship between Korea and Japan and both countries’ positions within the international state of affairs.” The work was commissioned by the Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju, Korea, where it premiered in September 2015, followed by a run in Tokyo and then the United States. Now is both a risky and opportune time to take up this subject, as animosity escalates between the two nations, due especially to both neoconservative governments’ disastrous foreign policies on issues such as territory disputes and reparations for Korean “comfort women.” Although baseball seems [End Page 226]
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at first to be a dubious entry point, the performance adopted the sport’s slow pace and rhythmic waltz of defense and offense to bring clarity to the historically stormy relationship between Japan and Korea.
Perhaps because of foreign presences, Okada’s characters rambled less. Instead, they calmly exchanged stories about baseball culture and the professional leagues of the two countries. There was no dramatic conflict; the questions and answers came at a leisurely pace because there was not much else to do to pass the time, besides half-hearted swings at practice throws and walks around the miniature diamond marked in white tape on the bare stage. (The only other set element was a large white installation suspended in the air upstage.) As they meandered, the characters...