What is endlessly worth examining and celebrating is how human beings cope and what that says about who we are, what we are capable of and some insightful guidance on how our souls can survive as well as our bodies.

These are among the themes of Tsunami, the world premiere by Miamians Nilo Cruz and Michiko Kitayama Skinner, a moving work of glorious theatricality that no other art form can duplicate.

This melding of movement-infused acting with superb designs of lights, shadow puppetry, sound, costumes, sets and projections grace the black box space at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center.


The script is drawn from on-site interviews conducted by the playwrights with 20 survivors one year after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami virtually erased the fishing village of Ozuchi in Japan, taking 1,300 lives. But unlike the similarly journalistic play, The Laramie Project, this one digs deeper and wider with a more universal aim.

Furthermore, it is far more stylistically staged with Cruz himself serving as director as he did on the similarly impressionistic Hurricane in 2014. Cruz has alloyed a half-dozen disciplines with a harmonious synergy in sync with his vision that result in tableaus of sight and sound that no one else could bring to his script.

Unforgettable is the image of large sheets of brown paper being wrapped tightly around standing motionless actors. The lasting impressions in the paper of their faces and bodies, looking a bit like Han Solo in Carbonite, are then stacked on shelves to represent bodies in a morgue.

Or a diaphanous blue silk drapery stretched across the stage, lit from behind, envelops victims still struggling before us under the lethal crush of water.


Tsunami charts the onset of the liquid wall, the survivors’ search for loved ones, the grief process, the political wrangling over how to protect themselves from future disasters and the slow quiet resolution as the people begin the never-to-be-completed healing process.

Among the issues the characters wrestle with is the seemingly randomness of it all. A collector of stories says, “It was a matter of life and death. Our lives were divided by thin lines; you either escaped by taking the right road or you were doomed by choosing the wrong one. Everybody came within a hair’s breadth of dying. It was a matter of luck! These are the stories that need to be heard.”

What is remarkable to Western sensibilities is the Japanese attitudes of restraint and sublimated emotion, other than the anxiety as they recall the storm itself. The triumph of the six-member cast portraying 14 characters is they create an imperfect stoicism that allows the audience to see the kaleidoscope of emotions flowing under the cauterized surface. While that pacific impassiveness may seem strange, these are storytellers relating events that occurred a year earlier; they have had time to develop mechanisms for bringing the pain under control.

It should be stressed that the verbiage is nearly absent the poetic imagery and magic realism that Cruz is famous for, such as his 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, which bowed at New Theatre.


That’s because Kitayama Skinner, a Toyko-born University of Miami educator, and Cruz have drawn exclusively on the words of the people they interviewed. Aside from an occasional description of dreams, these are ordinary people speaking Kitayama Skinner’s faithful translation of their everyday speech. Still, these two playwrights have skillfully identified and arranged recollections that are inherently beautiful in reflecting the speakers’ purity.


The stories they tell are stunning as they try to reconcile living with the sense that the spirits of the dead are still present, and therefore, with the pain and loss that will never be banished, but which can be come to terms with.


There is the monk who feels compelled at a memorial service to give a Buddhist name to each of the 128 dead and missing from his temple “to show how they lived their lives.”


There is the inn owner who rejects the common practice of cleansing spirits from a site, citing an employee who still lives, eats and sleeps as if her spouse is still alive at home. The inn owner says, “I don’t think it should be about sending the spirits away. This is a place where the dead and the living have been living together for the whole past year. I know this might seem frightening for people from the outside, but for us, it is natural that we are here together. That’s why this hotel has become a waiting room for wandering souls.”


The production makes an asset out of the dearth of Asian-American actors in the region. By casting Anglos, Hispanics and an African-American who avoid Asian accents, the evening becomes instantly universal.


Not that the play is not suffused with Japanese culture and images; for instance, artful projections by Dinorah de Jesus Rodriguez depict real Japanese citizens played across Japanese calligraphy.


Then there is the soundscape by Erik T. Lawson. Along with the persistent sounds of now-gentled waves, the venue is awash in a mixture of new age music with clacking Japanese wood blocks, far-off bells and electric piano notes reminiscent of random raindrops falling after a storm has passed.


One section features an elderly man who teaches the Lion Dance and a middle-aged man who teaches the Tiger Dance screening young recruits because the storm has swept away so many experienced performers. They insist passing on their forefathers’ culture to a 2012 generation, a refusal to let the disaster destroy their history.


But it culminates into two life-sized large shadow puppets of dancers in the traditional Tiger and Lion costumes with colorful gleaming eyes battling behind a screen. Those and other puppets were created by Kitayama Skinner who also chose the different costumes and created the imagistic set featuring a few poles and flowing fabric arrayed in ingeniously communicative ways.


We’ve unfairly left until late the inestimable contribution of veteran designer Eric Fliss’ lighting. Because he is the managing director of the venue, he has little time for designing locally as well as conflict of interest issues as a county employee. That’s our loss. His work here — sometime delicately dappled, sometimes searchlight harsh – ranks as some of the loveliest, deftest and evocative lighting seen in the region in some time. But crucial is how well-integrated it is with Kitayama Skinner’s set design and Cruz’s staging. It enhances them to the point that the show would not work half as well with less skillful illumination.


The ensemble who perform a multitude of easily differentiated characters include Ben Prayz, UM educators Jennifer Burke and Maha McCain, Jeremiah Musgrove (memorable in GableStage’s Mothers and Sons), and Serafin Falcon and Andy Barbosa who played father and son in Hurricane.


Credit is also due Pablo Souki, production manager and technical director, and the seemingly impossible chore of coordinating a flash flood of sounds and lights by Amy Rauchwerger, production stage manager.


Tsunami is a production of the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center (and therefore the county government’s cultural department) with support from the University of Miami Department of Theatre Arts and Arca Images, a small Miami-based troupe led by Artistic Director Cruz and Executive Production Director Alexa Kuve.


This is the kind of multi-disciplinary highly theatrical offering that is not seen often in Broward and rarely in Palm Beach County theaters. But it is worth a drive to this venue so far south to immerse yourself.


Tsunami plays through Oct. 3 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211 Street, Cutler Bay (Exit 11 on Turnpike). Performances 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 3:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time 1 hour 25 minutes with no intermission. Tickets $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Call (786) 573-5300 or visit



Humanity Struggles To Cope With Disaster in Tsunami

Posted on September 13, 2015 by Bill Hirschman

Florida Theater On Stage

The nature of tragedy due to blind Fate, vengeful Nature, an inscrutable God or Gods is no revelation to the residents of Homestead or the Lower Ninth Ward or the Twin Towers neighborhoods.


Nilo Cruz's Tsunami Brings Disaster to Life

By John Thomason

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

When the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan in March 2011, plenty of people filmed it and posted the footage. It takes a strong constitution to finish watching even one of those YouTube videos, which conjure a surreal apocalypse more horrifying than anything Hollywood has produced.

A seemingly endless black wave indiscriminately devours cities, suburbs, and farmland like a biblical plague, carrying away people, livestock, and cars. It spawns landslides and fires, decimates infrastructure, and causes meltdowns of three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In the end, the disaster claimed nearly 16,000 lives, left 4.4 million households without electricity, and caused an estimated $235 billion in damage.


The narrative could have taken place in New Orleans in 2005, Indonesia in 2004, or Miami in 1992.


For most Americans, the event seemed far, far away. But Michiko Kitayama Skinner, a Japanese-American working in Miami as a costume and set designer, has a personal connection to the region. Her mother grew up in the battered prefecture of Iwate, where the town of Otsuchi lost about 10 percent of its population to the disaster. Skinner's grandfather was a senator in Iwate. She wasn't about to stand by and idly watch the disaster movie play in front of her.


"Growing up in a political household, I did feel some kind of responsibility even though I was far away in Miami," Kitayama recalls. "I always love to tell stories and deal with socially relevant issues through my art. So I was thinking maybe we could do something to tell the stories [of the survivors]."


It turns out Kitayama's friend Nilo Cruz, the celebrated Miami playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize for 2003's Anna in the Tropics, was feeling the same sense of restlessness when he heard the news. "I was working with Michiko at the University of Miami; we had just finished a play," Cruz says. "We had heard what had happened in Japan, and we were both devastated and felt powerless. We had an immediate reaction of going to Japan. We thought that we should document the event in a play format."


Cruz and Kitayama received a University of Miami grant to visit Otsuchi, and a year after the tsunami, they interviewed more than 20 survivors, from tour guides and firefighters to fishermen, engineers, and monks. Kitayama, who has a command of both the language and the regional dialect, did the direct interviewing and transcribing — all while breastfeeding her 4-month-old.


"It was a very emotional experience," she recalls. "Each person did a two-hour-long interview. Some of them were quieter, but others were more eager to talk about the experience because it was more therapeutic for them to speak up about it. Even people who were helping us locally, they had never listened to other people's experiences. The whole team was in tears."


The next question Cruz and Kitayama faced was what to do with this compelling cache of first-person accounts? Cruz is primarily a fiction-based dramatist. Should they integrate some of these real stories into an invented narrative? "At the beginning, we didn't know what we were going to do," Cruz recalls. "But we discovered that all their stories were so intriguing that, at one point, Michiko and I looked at each other and we thought to ourselves, It has to be left in a way that we heard the voices. We decided to create a docudrama out of all these interviews we had gathered."


The result, three painstaking years later, is Tsunami, which world-premieres Saturday in a coproduction including Arca Images, the University of Miami, and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Cruz directs six professional actors, each playing four distinct parts, through a script composed entirely of the transcribed accounts, which will be presented onstage as a pastiche of monologues.


Through staging, costumes, and sets that suggest Japanese theater forms such as Kabuki, the poetry of the survivors' words will paint vivid pictures of the tsunami and its aftermath. There are stories of the sobering process of searching for and identifying bodies, after-death visitations, and fiery debates about the future of Japanese disaster prevention. Cruz and Kitayama hope to reveal human stories of survival, hope, and rebirth that act as a counterpoint to the disaster porn of American media.


They'll be doing it without a single Asian actor in their cast, a decision that initially resulted from budgetary concerns — there aren't enough working Asian actors in South Florida — but eventually became a proudly multicultural statement. There are Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian actors in the diverse cast. The narrative could have just as easily taken place in New Orleans in 2005, Indonesia in 2004, or Miami in 1992.


"When we were [in Japan], they were intrigued by me," Cruz remembers. "They said, 'Why are you interested in our story? Why would an American audience be interested in the destruction that happened here?' I had to say to them: 'We live in Miami, where we're constantly threatened by nature, by hurricanes, and we've gone through similar destruction.' So they sort of relaxed, because this wasn't for the purpose of making the story sensational or making use of the story for a commercial purpose."


"Yes, we are all playing these people who are Japanese, but it's human stories, regardless of what country or cultural background a person is coming from," says Serafin Falcon, who portrays a tour guide, an engineer, an inn employee, and a tiger dancer. "You come to realize, approaching it as a foreigner, that you can very easily replace the names. The suffering that is articulated may be a little different, but that pain, that love, that loss still remains the same. It's universal."




At the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, ‘Tsunami’ examines loss and healing

By Christine Dolen

September 13, 2015

Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz and Michiko Kitayama Skinner collaborate

Docudrama on Japanese earthquake and tsunami is beautifully realized

The multicultural actors underscore the universality of the play

Natural disaster is a tragic fact of life — and death — the world over. From ferocious hurricanes like Andrew in 1992 or Katrina in 2005 to the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster that decimated Japan in 2011, incomprehensible destruction, grieving and rebuilding are universal experiences.


Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, born in Cuba and raised in Miami, and stage designer Michiko Kitayama Skinner, a University of Miami theater faculty member who grew up in Japan, are global artists who dive deeply into myriad cultures in the course of their work. Their collaborative docudrama Tsunami, which is now getting its world premiere at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, demonstrates their attention to cultural detail and their desire to communicate broader themes.


Constructed from interviews Cruz and Kitayama Skinner conducted in the devastated town of Ozumi a year after the disaster claimed 1,284 lives there, the play uses the residents’ translated words to paint a picture of loss both specific and monumental. The playwrights have also collaborated on the production, Cruz as director, Kitayama Skinner as designer of the sets, costumes and puppets used at key points in the storytelling.


Six actors (four men, two women) play multiple roles, sometimes switching genders. Though there are no Asian actors in the show (Cruz has said he auditioned locally but couldn’t find Asian performers), the combination of Latino, black and white actors in the cast underscores the play’s universality.


As he has demonstrated in staging his own work at Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box, Cruz is a director skilled at conjuring dramatically poetic visual imagery. For Tsunami, he utilizes Brechtian and Asian theater styles in an episodic 90-minute piece that, thanks to Kitayama Skinner’s evocatively simple design and Eric Fliss’ beautiful lighting, is often visually stunning. Sound designer and composer Erik T. Lawson contributes subtly atmospheric music, the sound of a lapping ocean, the scene-shifting signal of a stick drum.


As actors Serafin Falcon, Andy Barbosa, Jeremiah Musgrove, Ben Prayz, Jennifer Burke and Maha McCain deliver little monologues and play out scenes, faint images of the people they’re portraying are projected onto a backdrop representing the ocean that spawned the tsunami. Japanese writing — Kitayama Skinner’s interview notes? — surrounds those images, the result adding to the sense of place.


Among the people we meet: A “collector” (Prayz) who takes down survivors’ stories in notebooks he bought from a nearly emptied store; a tour guide (Falcon) evoking the memory of his lost fiancée; a young fisherman (Barbosa) who explains why heading out to sea in a tsunami is the right thing to do; a gardener (Musgrove) who creates a beautiful phone booth in his garden to let survivors “talk” to the dead; an inn owner (Burke) who resents the idea of a spirit cleansing in a haunted area; a young man (McCain) whose noisy dead relatives keep him up at night.


Some of Cruz’s staging touches are as striking as they are devastating. The actors create a morgue by pressing stiff paper against the faces and bodies of other actors, then placing what looks like shrouded bodies on rolling tables lit by lanterns. A paper lantern becomes a red moon. Shadow puppets behind fabric turn into heartbreaking ghosts walking hand-in-hand along the beach.


The barefoot actors incorporate a style and movement that serve Tsunami without stealing the rich vocabulary of Kabuki theater. The Cuba-trained Barbosa, youthful and playful, delivers the most memorable performance and best utilizes the show’s physical style. The handsome Falcon has a heart-breaking gravitas as he speaks of the tour guide’s missing love. Musgrove impressively transforms from a firefighter to a Buddhist monk to the thoughtful gardener — even briefly portraying a woman whose dead husband won’t let her get a wink of sleep. Prayz shines brightest as the tradition-proud lion dancer, Burke as a new widow, McCain as a grieving mother experiencing a miracle.


Tsunami is unlikely to have the enduring impact of a riveting docudrama like The Laramie Project or of Cruz’s original dramas, in which the language is so often a thing of beauty. But in a place where such disasters have happened — and will inevitably happen again — it serves as reflection and reminder. And as a lovingly wrought statement about hope and resilience.




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