Mark Izu has brought together artists from across the United States and spent years putting together “Songs for J-Town,” but he only expected around 60 people to attend the April 23 world premiere at the Presidio. San Francisco Theater when he scheduled the show during the height of the omicron surge. Instead, more than 400 people were in the audience, many of whom were longtime members of San Francisco’s Japantown community.
Izu, an Emmy-winning composer, worked with Brenda Wong Aoki, his wife and a professional storyteller, to curate the eclectic show featuring elements of swing, jazz and even traditional Noh theater in a multimedia journey that draws on generations of Japanese American experiences. , as well as the diverse communities that have gathered in the neighborhoods of Japantown, Fillmore, and Western Addition. The show ended with a recollection of the people and places the community has lost over the years, including poet Al Robles, the Kokusai Theater and, most recently, Hatsy Yasukochi of Yasukochi Sweet Stop.
As part of the show, Izu installed a “sacred tree”, an arrangement of branches and peonies, in the courtyard of the theater. Participants were asked to write a wish or memory from Japantown to decorate the tree. Visitors brought back memories of attending Nihonmachi Little Friends, eating manju from the now-closed Benkyodo, and a host of other vignettes. Izu said he wanted to leave a memory for George Yamasaki Jr., his pianist who died in February. Izu left the piano seat open in Yamasaki’s honor during the show.
“I know George is here with us in spirit,” he said on the show.
For many, the show evoked memories of Japantown and hope for an inclusive future. Rosalyn Tonai said this was her first such post-COVID gathering and would be a memorable gathering for many years to come.
“It was excellent. It brought all of these elements together, about history, family, community, J-Town, redevelopment, anger, boiling magma, but at the same time – the creation of new islands – a new thought, new thoughts and a new path. So
I really like the metaphor,” she said, referencing Wong Aoki’s Sun Goddess segment.
The show gave artist eryn kimura a sense of love and community.
“We always try to explain things, to articulate things, but this, you could just feel it and it was honestly love through and through, and it was deep,” she said. about the show. “It was very ancestral. It was like something was…definitely instigated from the marrow of everyone’s bones.
Izu attracted people from all over the country to help with the production. His son, KK Aoki Izu, came from Boston to help his parents. He said it was amazing to see so many members of the community watching his parents perform.
“I grew up watching my parents perform in Japantown,…and it’s cool to see it building up to this point, especially after we…slowly went through (COVID-19).”
The show featured music by Izu and his band: Jimi Nakagawa, Karl Evangelista, Mas Koga, Jim Norton, and Sara Sithi-Amnuai, along with vocalist Caroline Cabading and lyrics by Wong Aoki and Devorah Major. According to Izu, the group only got to practice together about a week before the premiere, but Izu had already worked with most of the members and said they didn’t need too much rehearsal time.
“But the spirit was so good. And, Caroline, my first time working with her, but I’ve known her for years. So, she’s a Filipina Fillmore, so I said, ‘OK, you have to be in the series.’ And she’s wonderful. Sara was my mentee from LA with the LA band Little Tokyo. And so I enjoyed working with her so much that I said “You gotta be in the show” and play one of your songs. So she just brought her stuff,” Izu said.
Wong Aoki said she was happy that their performance brought the community together after years of isolation due to the pandemic.
“The most radical thing you can do is live. To be present. Find your joy where you can. I mean, it’s really, really hard. It’s so much easier to doomscroll, but I think between us we can go on, right? ” she says. “I was really sad about the tribalization of everyone, black people with black people and Chinese people with Chinese people, and Japanese people with Japanese people. And for those of us who are mixed race, as I am Chinese, Japanese, Scottish Spanish, but my grandfather was one of the founders of J-Town, so I’m not part of J-Town?… This stuff was like, something we had to fight with, but I think that’s changing too. So it was really, really good to have all these people out there.
Mas Koga, who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, returned from Brooklyn, New York to star in the one night show with Izu. Koga, a Shin-Issei, said he had worked with Izu and Wong Aoki for nearly two decades and had taught him a lot. While working on “Songs for J-Town,” Koga said he learned a lot about Japanese-American history and it left him with a sense of gratitude.
“My ancestors weren’t in this country, so I don’t have any immediate family that was incarcerated or had redevelopment or relocation, … luckily I have Brenda and Mark who are directly related to the history of Japantown and Japanese American history,” Koga said. “Through them, I learned first-hand about their ancestry and their involvement in the community…so those stories are starting to take on familiar faces. that moment, it kind of becomes my story too, and so I feel closer to the Japanese-American story, even though I’m a Shin-Nikkei, so I’m really grateful for that.
Izu said it was good to end the show.
“It can always be better, but it was really good,” he said. “The intention was there. That’s what I tell everyone, it’s a matter of intention. You know, you just play the intention and everything works.