Japanese tsunami inspires associate professor Kitayama to create documentary drama

"Tsunami," a documentary drama regarding the after effects of the largest earthquake Japan has ever seen, is currently playing at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Giancarlo Falconi // Assistant Photo Editor
“Tsunami,” a documentary drama regarding the after effects of the largest earthquake Japan has ever seen, is currently playing at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Giancarlo Falconi // Assistant Photo Editor

The Tohoku region of Japan was hit by a natural disaster of massive proportions on March 11, 2011. The largest earthquake the country had ever seen combined with a subsequent tsunami had devastating effects. This horrifying event is the basis for the documentary drama “Tsunami,” currently playing at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, written by Michiko Kitayama, University of Miami associate professor and costume designer.

Kitayama was immediately drawn to the story because of her familiarity with the area affected, where her mother grew up and her father served as state senator for more than 30 years. On top of her personal connection, she felt an artistic obligation to bring the tsunami’s aftermath to life on stage.

“I always feel like theatre is not just entertainment,” Kitayama said. “I love doing pieces that have more social messages to the community or to the world, so I felt compelled to tell the story to people.”

In the spring of 2011, Kitayama applied for the Provost’s Research Awards, a research grant for professors, in order to visit the disaster zone and conduct interviews for the play. She also looked for a partner for the project and found enthusiastic Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz.

“It’s been a long time since I wrote my last play, so I felt like I needed somebody’s help,” she said. “Immediately, he’s like, ‘I want to do it.’”

After receiving the grant and spending months planning, the two finally traveled to the town of Otsuchi, Japan in April of 2012, more than a year after the disaster originally hit. To talk to as many people as possible, Kitayama used her connections in the area to schedule interviews in advance.

“They still had fear, a lot of it, but they also started to think back on what really happened to them,” Kitayama said. “But they also had time to mourn people who were gone, so it was interesting timing.”

In the interviews, Kitayama tried to draw the real emotions out of her subjects.

“My job was to try to recreate the impact of that moment, the heat of the moment, even though they were thinking back and talking about things a year after,” she said.

After drafting “Tsunami,” the pair did a series of readings to refine the script. However, this process proved frustrating for Kitayama.

“It really didn’t do the justice of what Nilo and I wanted to accomplish with the show,” she said. “It’s a visual journey as well as the text. Our vision was clear from the beginning that it’s not just a documentary drama.”

Once “Tsunami” was workshopped on its feet, Kitayama gained confidence. In an unusual choice for live theater, the production team opted for musical underscoring during the whole play, bringing sound designer Eric Lawson on at the beginning of the process. In addition, they shaved 30 minutes off the script for a more streamlined production.

In rehearsal for the premiere production, Kitayama and Cruz grappled with how best to structure “Tsunami.” In particular, they wanted to capture the unexpected onset of the disaster in the opening of the show.

“It doesn’t have that normal structure of a play,” Kitayama said. “We wanted to have that sort of sudden punch, because normally people come to the theater expecting some peaceful beginning.”

They also struggled with how to acknowledge the documentary format of the script on stage, eventually opting for a very upfront presentation of the source material.

“From the beginning, they’re telling the audience that ‘I am an actor and I am going to play this role’,” Kitayama said. “They are almost borrowing the actual people’s words and representing themselves and their experiences to the world.”

Kitayama hopes “Tsunami” will leave audiences feeling uplifted.

“The whole message is very universal. I think that’s why this theatrical piece is very important,” she said. “It’s not about sitting there and getting hit by these hard stories. We still have fear, but I think it gives you the courage that it’s going to be okay.”

Isabella Cueto contributed to this report.