JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. — The National Storytelling Network (www.storynet.org) recently announced that Brenda Wong Aoki of San Francisco is a recipient of the Oracle Circle of Excellence Award.
This award is presented to artists who are recognized nationally by their peers to be master storytellers who set the standards for excellence and have demonstrated, over a significant period of time, a commitment and dedication to the art of storytelling.
In its 41-year history the National Storytelling Festival has featured only six Asian American storytellers. Aoki was the first of these, appearing four times in the last 26. She has deep roots in San Francisco, where she has been based for three decades.
Her paternal grandfather was one of the founders of San Francisco Japantown in the 1890s and her maternal grandmother was a leader of the first Chinatown garment union in the 1920s. Grounded in a tangling of diverse ethnic roots, Aoki describes her work as “performing stories … of people living between worlds.”
Her ghost story “Black Hair” – an early signature piece adapted from one of the oldest collections of Japanese mythology – was published in “Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival” (Little Rock: August House, 1991).
Of her affinity for ghost stories, she writes: “I got hooked on ghost stories when I was studying noh theater. There, the dead are more important than the living. It’s the actions of the dead that bring us to the present. If you know the past, you can change your future. Japanese ghosts are usually female … They are pure passion. Women with a mission, so filled with love, jealousy or rage, they won’t go peacefully to eternal rest until their story is told.”
Her rigor as an artist, and the excellence of her eclectic repertoire – based on subjects ranging from Asian teenage gang warfare in the streets of Los Angeles, Japanese legends and ghost stories, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, women’s obsession over aging, the impact of miscegenation laws on her paternal grandfather’s family at the turn of the 20th century, and environmental issues (the focus of her latest work, “Mu”) – are undisputable.
As a multiethnic teller whose work often engages complex and political subject matter, she has pioneered theatrical storytelling not only on the stage of the National Storytelling Festival, but also at the Japan America Theatre (Los Angeles), the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), At the Foot of the Mountain Theatre (Minneapolis), the New Victory Theatre on Broadway, the Dallas Theatre Center, Tsukuba World Expo (Japan), the Adelaide International Festival in Australia, the Graz Festival in Austria, and the Esplanade in Singapore.
Through her recognition in the broader church of theatrical performance, and the international reach of her teaching and touring, she has expanded the public’s awareness of American storytelling beyond the storytelling festival stage. She has been lauded by The San Francisco Chronicle (“Aoki lights up the stage”), The Chicago Weekly Reader (“An actor and dancer with great technical skill who doesn’t make her virtuosity the point. Instead she focuses tightly on the stories she tells”), The Seattle Times (“Stunning performances”), and The Los Angeles Times (“Aoki [makes] relevant and magical even the most faraway tales.”)
In collaboration with her husband, jazz composer Mark Izu, Aoki has released three musically underscored spoken-word audio recordings: “Tales of the Pacific Rim: Dreams and Illusions” (1990) and “The Queen’s Garden” (1996) – both INDIE award winners – and “Legend of the Morning Glory” (2009). In addition, she provided the spoken-word narrative on Izu’s multidisciplinary recorded work, “Last Dance” (1998).
She also published “Mermaid Meat – The Secret to Immortality and Other Japanese Ghost Stories” (San Francisco; Belly to Belly, 2007), a print collection of tales (plus a CD recording) sumptuously illustrated with woodblock prints by the 19th century Japanese artist Yoshitoshi.
World Arts West, the U.S./Japan Friendship Commission at Friend Center for the Arts, and the Hong Kong Cultural Center have commissioned Aoki to create performance pieces. She is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts solo performance grants and a Rockefeller fellowship.
Aoki was recently commissioned by the State of California to create a site-specific storytelling performance work with music and dance about the history of San Francisco Japantown. In addition, Aoki and her husband will premiere a storytelling suite for chamber ensemble with the Orchestre Symphonie de Montréal in 2015.
Aoki will receive her award at the National Storytelling Awards Ceremony on Saturday, July 26, at the Hilton Phoenix/Mesa hotel in Mesa, Ariz. For more information about Aoki, visit www.brendawongaoki.com.