Kristen Nemoto Jay
Editor’s note: This story was written in collaboration with Ohana Arts.
Honolulu youth theater company Ohana Arts premieres the revival production of its signature musical “Peace On Your Wings” from Thursday, Feb. 9 through Saturday, Feb. 11 at the historic Hawaii Theatre. The musical, which was inspired by the true story of Hiroshima bombing victim Sadako Sasaki, follows the lives of Sadako and her middle school classmates in 1950s post-war Hiroshima. Sadako was 2 years old when the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Following the Japanese tradition, which grants a wish to anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes, Sadako and her friends embarked on a quest to fold a thousand cranes to bring her back to good health. Sadako became an international symbol for peace, inspiring a youth movement to have a memorial built in Hiroshima in honor of all child victims. “Peace On Your Wings” captures the challenges of Sadako’s journey also noting all the things that come with adolescence, the power of friendship in the face of hardship, and, most of all, how Sadako’s dreams for a better tomorrow teaches us all about courage, love and peace.
“It is absolutely incredible, kind of surreal, watching this production evolve over the past eight years,” said Ohana Arts co-artistic director and lyricist Laurie Rubin. “When we started, we had no idea what a journey this show would be on.”
The original musical score, written by Laurie and Ohana Arts’ executive and co-artistic director and composer Jennifer Taira, combines modern pop with Japanese influences to create an uplifting and unforgettable experience. New songs will debut in the 2023 remounting of the show, which originally premiered in 2014. The show is directed by Cari Taira, co-founder of Ohana Arts, along with Jennifer and Laurie. Choreography is by Danielle Hannah Bensky.
Back in 2014, Ohana Arts used to be cross registered with the Honpa Hongwanji Mission School with the original intention and goal of “Peace On Your Wings” to be toured with neighbor island temples. When Laurie and Jennifer started writing, however, and became more inspired by Sadako’s story and the cast and community rallying around the show, they felt they should do more to spread Sadako’s message and give the cast the opportunity to share it with more audiences. As these past eight years have flown by, the accomplishments of Ohana Arts and its production “Peace On Your Wings” has flourished. In 2015, while “Peace On Your Wings” was featured at Hawaii Theatre and helped to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Mayor Kirk Caldwell named Aug. 6, 2015, “Peace On Your Wings Day” at the opening of the show. That Saturday, on Aug. 8, after the “Peace On Your Wings” show concluded, Masahiro Sasaki — Sadako’s real-life brother, who was in attendance for the show — met and tearfully thanked cast member Shayna Yasunaga for her performance as Sadako Sasaki. In 2016, Ohana Arts toured the show in New York City, where the cast had the opportunity to view one of Sadako’s cranes on display at the World Trade Tribute Center. The show was also performed in 2017 for a three-city tour of Northern California, including San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento. In 2020, “Peace On Your Wings” was scheduled to perform in Hiroshima, Japan, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing; however, due to the pandemic, the show was canceled and postponed indefinitely. This didn’t stop the connection between the city and Ohana Arts’ committee as they are scheduled to finally perform “Peace On Your Wings” on Saturday, Sept. 2 and Sunday, Sept. 3 at the Aster Plaza in Hiroshima after their performances at the Aratani Theatre in Los Angeles on Saturday, Aug. 5 and Sunday, Aug. 6 and at the Hawaii Theatre next month.
“Heading to Hiroshima has been a dream since the beginning,” Laurie continues. “Jenny and I had no idea when we were writing the script in our nighties at 3 a.m. that the show would have gone to ten cities in eight years, have multiple cast performing it and have national and even international fans and supporters.”
To see the evolution of Ohana Arts and the “Peace On Your Wings” production has been a rewarding experience, said Laurie. A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 2010, Ohana Arts provides high-caliber training for youth ages 6-18 with a mission to cultivate peace through the universal language of the arts. Local and mainland-based teaching artists are invited to join the faculty of instructors, directors, music directors and choreographers for the annual Ohana Arts summer program. Its Youth Theatre Company commissions, produces and tours original works telling stories from the youth perspective focused on themes of diversity, including “Peace On Your Wings.”
As witnessed in the 2015 hit “Hamilton,” a sung-and-rapped-through musical about American founding father Alexander Hamilton and written, created and directed by American composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, Laurie said youths from across the states were showing a new interest in U.S. history. Laurie believes “Peace On Your Wings” has the potential to leave that kind of legacy and impact on audiences.
“I’ve heard from former audience members of the show that they started folding cranes of their own and started writing research papers for school projects on Hiroshima. I think that more people, adults and kids alike, who see and perform this production, the bigger the impact the show will have and it is urgently needed in this time.”
In January 2018, Ohana Arts had a meeting with the Hiroshima committee who is currently responsible for bringing the show to Hiroshima this year. The day the committee was supposed to return to Hiroshima from Honolulu, the state of Hawai‘i was put into a brief but terrorizing panic when a false alert declared that a missile was headed towards Hawai‘i. Laurie says because nuclear weaponry has been mentioned, almost casually in reference to Russia and North Korea these past years, “it is so important for people to understand the implications of nuclear warfare, the far reaching effects and long lasting suffering that spans several generations. A show like, ‘Peace On Your Wings’ can be more effective than any textbook because when an audience steps into the theater, they are letting down their guard and allowing themselves to be touched at the most vulnerable level. If we do our job right, they will be educated at the deepest level about why we urgently need to act so that it becomes absolutely prohibitive for any thought of bringing that threat to fruition. That is our ultimate goal.”
Aside from the overall production success of “Peace On Your Wings,” Laurie says the most rewarding part of this show has been seeing how life changing it has been for the casts involved.
“We have seen each cast member develop from the experience of learning a new show, having to adapt as we made edits and learn material quickly, learn how to think on their feet when things went wrong from a technical standpoint on stage, develop poise and flexibility, and become the musical leaders in our program because their chops for learning harmonies and new music constantly strengthened them and made them into strong leaders,” said Laurie. “Watching cast members grow their artistry and their individual humanity through the process of performing and touring this show was incredible. All of these things were life changing and eye-opening for all of us.”
“Peace On Your Wings” will showcase at Hawaii Theatre Center, located at 1130 Bethel St., on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 10, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 11, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20-$55. To purchase go to ohanaarts.org/tickets or call (808) 528-0506.