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.
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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.
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: 8:30 p.m. Friday, 3:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 3.
Cost: $25 in advance, $30 day of show.
Information: Call 786-573-5300 or visit smdcac.org.