Nilo Cruz and Michiko Kitayama Skinner are admired, in-demand theater artists.
He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Anna in the Tropics, which premiered at tiny New Theatre in Coral Gables, won him the drama prize in 2003) and opera librettist (Bel Canto, based on Ann Patchett’s novel and with a score by Peruvian composer Jimmy López, premieres at Chicago’s Lyric Opera Dec. 7-Jan. 17).
She’s an associate professor of theater at the University of Miami, a costume and set designer who has also written plays. The latest additions to Skinner’s long list of credits in university and regional theater are Tennessee’s Treasures, a production opening at UM’s Jerry Herman Ring Theatre in Coral Gables Sept. 23, and Tsunami, which will have its world premiere at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.
Tsunami, a docudrama by Cruz and Kitayama Skinner, was born of a feeling each artist had after the horrific 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011.
“I had the same feeling I had when Sept. 11 happened. You want to do something. But what can you do?” Cruz says.
Kitayama Skinner, who was born and raised in Tokyo, recalls, “I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ I heard that a big city in the Iwate prefecture was ‘vanished.’ I couldn’t understand what that meant. I was terrified.”
In the late summer/early fall of 2011, Cruz and Kitayama Skinner were working together on a UM production of his early play Night Train to Bolina. He was directing, she designing, and at some point she told him she had applied for a university grant to go to Japan for research. Did he know a playwright who could help her? Busy as he was and is, Cruz was interested.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for Japan and the Japanese culture. My daughter is part Japanese,” says Cruz, who was born in Cuba and came to Miami with his family at age 10.
The grant came through, and that December, Kitayama Skinner gave birth to her second child, a baby named Kenzo. In March 2012, a year after the earthquake and tsunami, Cruz, Kitayama Skinner and Kenzo (who was then a nursing 4-month-old) traveled to Ozuchi, the small town where Kitayama Skinner’s mother had grown up. Kitayama Skinner’s grandfather had been a senator in Ozuchi, and she knew the area well. In advance of the 10-day research trip, her mother set up multiple interviews with survivors.
Initially, those survivors wondered about the soft-spoken Cuban writer and the Japanese woman with the baby.
“Everybody thought he was Nilo’s,” Kitayama Skinner says, smiling. “There weren’t that many children or babies there. It was sad. Other people had to hold Kenzo when we talked, and I think it was therapeutic. He’s a smiley one.”
At first, some of the residents were curious but reserved.
“People wondered what it was about their story that intrigued us. But I explained that I live in South Florida. I grew up in the Caribbean, where we’re bombarded by nature and disaster,” Cruz says. “We told them we thought the audience could relate to them. Then they would open up.”
The observant playwright remembers that his initial image of Ozuchi was of “a small town by the water — in ruins. A lot of the debris had been cleared. All of the TVs were in one mound. The tires were in another pile. The tsunami survivors were living in trailers. It was springtime, and their flower boxes were full of tulips. You felt a sense of hope and life continuing.”
Cruz and Kitayama Skinner traveled to Japan with the intention of “finding a protagonist,” she says. “I thought we’d find a core story. But every single person had a character so strong ... The interviews became the basis of this ensemble play instead of one journey.”
Cruz found the material in its original interview format “so powerful and so magical, we decided to leave it like it is ... I didn’t want the generic story. I wanted specific ones about the event. I asked about their dreams. We scouted the people who became the Lion Dancer, the Tiger Dancer and the Monk. We learned about the resilient spirit of these people. How they have the capacity to move on, to find beauty in destruction. How it made them get in touch with their humanity. How it also created new life.”
Back in South Florida, Kitayama Skinner spent a year transcribing each two-hour interview. She would pick passages that were interesting and translate them into English. While she and Cruz wanted to use the actual material in the play, she says, “we didn’t want a documentary drama like The Laramie Project. Even with the realistic testament, visually it needed to be very dreamlike. Almost like an art installation.”
Andy Señor Jr., who has just staged a production of Rent in Japan (and who did a groundbreaking one in Havana last December), was initially involved with Tsunami as its director. Having created the Viva Broadway shows at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, Señor asked managing director Eric Fliss if the team could do a reading there.
“The text is interviews. The idea of associating it with this center, after the experience of Hurricane Andrew here, made sense,” Fliss says. “I asked really hard questions. Nilo’s response was, ‘We’ll make it theatrical.’ Then Michiko said, ‘But we have to stay true to it.’ So I knew there would be real process to it.”
After the reading, the script was further refined during a two-week University of Miami workshop. Señor directed, and a choreographer and sound designer were involved. Cruz and Kitayama Skinner cut a half hour from the script, but then Señor became unavailable when he joined the creative team taking the Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical On Your Feet! to Broadway.
For the Tsunami world premiere — a collaborative effort of the South Miami-Dade center, the University of Miami and Arca Images, the company that has been producing productions of Cruz’s plays at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box — Cruz took over as director.
Serafin Falcon, Jeremiah Musgrove, Andy Barbosa, Ben Prayz, Maha McCain and Jennifer Burke all play multiple roles in the production. None of the actors is Asian, in part because South Florida doesn’t have many Asian stage actors, in part because Cruz wants to emphasize the play’s universality. He also has firm ideas about finding exactly the right performance style for the piece.
“I wanted an element of Kabuki, of Japanese theater, but just a flavor that would remind us that this is a different culture ... I had to make it more Brechtian, more presentational. The actors tell you, ‘These are not our stories.’ They’re sharing a culture that’s not theirs,” Cruz says. “It’s challenging for me as a director and challenging for the actors. The style has to be more physical and yet more contained. It needs to be very precise.”
Fliss, a South Florida theater pioneer who was a founder of the edgy Acme Acting Company, has embraced his former career as a lighting designer to work on Tsunami. He lauds Cruz’s creation of a storytelling ensemble with a strong style.
“I have such a reverence for Nilo and his work. To have an original Nilo Cruz script premiere here is a great milestone for us,” Fliss says.
Through Oct. 3, audiences who travel to Cutler Bay to see Tsunami in the center’s intimate Black Box Theater will encounter versions of the vividly memorable people Cruz and Kitayama Skinner met in Ozuchi. They include a gardener living half-way up a mountain who installed an old-fashioned phone booth with a non-working handset in his garden so that people could talk to the dead. A monk charged with bestowing 168 posthumous Buddhist names on the dead and missing. A young man who has trouble sleeping because the spirits of his lost relatives enter his room each night, making a racket.
“To me, this play is about how you connect with the person you lost. People talk about the missing or dead as if they were still alive. They see them as ghosts or as people in their dreams,” Kitayama Skinner says. “I think we always worry and are secretly nervous that we may lose our loved ones tomorrow. And if something like that suddenly happens, how do you go on?”
If you go
What: World premiere of ‘Tsunami’ by Nilo Cruz and Michiko Kitayama Skinner.
Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay.
When: Opens 8:30 p.m. Sept. 12; performances 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 3:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 3.
Cost: $25 in advance, $30 day of show.
Information: Call 786-573-5330 or visit smdcac.org.