Gwen Battad Ishikawa
“I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.” — Sadako Sasaki
The story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who developed and died of leukemia as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, will take the stage from Nov. 20 to 22 at Leeward Community College Theater.
The original musical, presented by Ohana Arts Festival and School, in cooperation with the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, was co-written by Ohana Arts co-founders Laurie Rubin and Jennifer Taira and will be directed by Taira’s sister, Carolyn Lee, also an Ohana Arts co-founder.
As part of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii’s 125th anniversary commemoration, the mission asked Lee, who is the drama director at the Hongwanji Mission School, to develop a play with a positive message — one that they could also tour as a gift to the neighbor island churches. Since Lee couldn’t find a play she wanted to do, Taira decided to write one.
“I’ve always wanted to do a musical about the life of Sadako, so this was a good time and opportunity to do that,” Taira said. “As the project got bigger and bigger, we decided to make it an Ohana Arts project, which is a much bigger program than HMS,” she said.
An island-wide open audition was held for the youth cast members. It brought out quite a few Hongwanji Mission School and Pacific Buddhist Academy students, some of whom also perform in the Ohana Arts summer program.
Ohana Arts applied for a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts, which encourages new works about cultures that are prevalent in Hawai‘i. They also received donations through the funding platform Kickstarter.
Over the years, Sadako Sasaki has come to symbolize the horror of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako was 2 years old when the U.S. dropped the bomb on the city on Aug. 6, 1945. She was later diagnosed with leukemia and began folding paper cranes, determined to fold 1,000 cranes and have her health restored by the gods as promised in folklore. Sadako died at the age of 12 after folding only 644 cranes. After her passing, her schoolmates folded the remaining 356 cranes, which were buried with her.
Although the story is about Sadako’s life, the playwrights decided to highlight Sadako’s relationship with her friends. “It’s a middle school story — bullying, being insecure and giving in to peer pressure. Sadako’s story is in there, but the focus is not on her sickness,” Taira explained.
“Sadako was the glue for her friends, and when she got sick, their relationships start falling apart. They’re at the point in their lives, [transitioning] from elementary to junior high. In the play, by the time they get to junior high, their relationships are strained.
“In real life, her friends were the ones that came together to build the monument (at the Hiroshima Peace Park) and they’re the reason why we know who Sadako is today. I wanted to show that side of the story and how her death affected them,” Taira said.
Rubin said they decided to also weave into the story the impact the Hiroshima bombing had on the youth.
“One character talks early on about how her family died in what they called the ‘Thunderbolt,’ except for her grandma. That explains why she has her issues and what actually alienated her from her friends early on. The Thunderbolt is very responsible for a lot of things that happen in the play,” she said.
Jennifer Taira graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in music and is an accomplished pianist and clarinet player. Laurie Rubin, a mezzo-soprano, graduated from Oberlin College with degrees in English literature and vocal performance. The pair met at Yale School of Music, where they both received master’s degrees in music.
They founded Ohana Arts Festival and School in 2010. The program, which is run in the summer through the Hongwanji Mission School, is based on Taira’s desire to create a program similar to the Interlochen Arts Academy, which she attended on scholarship. “[At Interlochen,] I met kids from all over the world who were so passionate about the arts,” said Taira. “We all experienced a powerful bonding experience through the arts. I wanted to bring something like that to Hawai‘i,” she said.
She said Hawai‘i is a good location for such a program. Ohana Arts began with 22 students and has grown to about 80 students from over 30 schools. Their eventual goal is to have kids from all over the world attend the summer program.
As composers, Taira and Rubin found different challenges in writing the musical. “The challenges we faced were related to ensuring that our vision coincided with a good and effective narrative arc,” Rubin emailed. “It’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. We might have an idea for one scene, but it could affect a scene prior to that, so we just have to make sure everything works and makes sense.”
They were also challenged in developing Sadako’s voice in the story. “We wanted to pay homage to Sadako, and didn’t know exactly how to write her accurately. The result at first was a character who was too bland for us, not lovable enough, not distinctive or unique enough,” Rubin wrote.
“However, research solved that problem for us because we were so touched to hear about her from friends who survived her, and who wrote accounts of her and anecdotes, particularly fond memories, funny stories, etc. Once we learned more about her, it was much easier to write her character. The result is something we’re much happier with now.”
“Peace on Your Wings” premieres on Thursday, Nov. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at Leeward Community College Theatre, with additional performances set for Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m., and on Nov. 22, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The show will travel to the Big Island, Maui and Kaua‘i in January.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and can be purchased through http://www.showtix4u.com. Search “buy tickets/event search” for “Peace on Your Wings.” Tickets will also be available at the door for $20 and $15.