SAN FRANCISCO — “Soul of the City,” a world premiere by Brenda Wong Aoki and First Voice, will be presented Saturday, Sept. 30, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 1, at 7 p.m. at the Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave. in San Francisco.

“Soul of the City” follows a storyteller who has no more stories to tell. Her husband is sick, her boy has moved away, and no one is listening to her stories. Pursued by demons and haunted by ghosts, the storyteller embarks on a journey to find the soul of San Francisco.

This multimedia music drama is a ritual performance. Rooted in traditional Japanese theater and music and infused with contemporary spoken word and Asian American jazz, the “Soul of the City” reveals the divine in us all.

Written by Brenda Wong Aoki. Directed by David Furumoto with musical direction by Masaru Koga. Original music by Mark Izu, Masaru Koga, and Derek Nakamoto. Multimedia by Andi Wong and Olivia Ting. Costumes by Lydia Tanji. Performers include Brenda Wong Aoki, Caroline Cabading, Masaru Koga, devorah major, Shoko Hikage, Jimi Nakagawa and Kenneth Nash.

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About Brenda Wong Aoki

Aoki is a playwright, an artistic director, and America’s first nationally recognized Asian Pacific storyteller. She creates works for theater, symphony, contemporary dance, world music, taiko, jazz, live performance with film and museum installations. A descendant of Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and Scottish ancestors, her work speaks to the essential hybridity of American culture.

Aoki has deep roots in San Francisco. Her grandfather, Rev. Chojiro Aoki, in the 1800s was a founder of the nation’s first Japantown in San Francisco. One of the world’s first fully ordained Japanese Christian priests, he was forced out of Grace Cathedral because he supported his younger brother’s marriage to a white woman and died in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Aoki was born. She wrote an award winning play, “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend,” about this story and the children resulting from the marriage, the first documented biracial Japanese children in the U.S.

Her grandmother, Alice Wong, a biracial Chinese woman, was a founder of the first Chinatown garment union in the nation’s first Chinatown, also in San Francisco.

Aoki has been awarded Hollywood-Dramalogue, Critics Circle and Dramatist Guild awards, two NEA Theater Fellowships, the first Wattis Artist Residency, and a Japan-U.S. Creative Artist Fellowship. Past presenters include the Kennedy Center, New Victory Theater on Broadway, Hong Kong Performing Arts Center, the Adelaide International Festival in Australia, the Esplanade in Singapore, San Diego Rep, Dallas Theater Center and the Apollo Theater.

This year she will premierea new work about her family’s 126-year history in San Francisco commissioned by a Hewlett 50 Playwright Award. Since 1976, she and her partner, composer Mark Izu, have created original performance works by people of color representing the authentic story of America. (

Artist Statement

Receiving the Hewlett 50 Playwright Commission is the greatest honor of my life, and a responsibility to truth-tell that I do not take lightly. I received this award prior to the pandemic and was going to create a very different work, but life intervened.

My husband and I were stalked for miles in Golden Gate Park by a man calling us the “Virus!” Four of our friends were beaten up, one so badly he almost died. People were calling Mark and I from all over the country asking us here in San Francisco, the birthplace of Asia America, for guidance as assaults spiked nationally. The violence continued to spread, encompassing the vulnerable in all communities, not just Asians.

COVID continued and performing artists spent years without work. I got so stressed out that I ended up in the hospital. That is where this work, “Soul of the City,” really began.

In the hospital I couldn’t talk, which is very distressing for a storyteller. It wasn’t that I couldn’t actually talk, it was that I didn’t know how to respond because people’s emotions were so much louder than their words. That’s when I realized that I could talk to anyone whose language I didn’t speak! It was wonderful! I’d look into their eyes (the windows of the soul) and use my face and hands to show them how I felt, and we understood each other perfectly.

Outside the window of my hospital room was a gigantic pine tree. One day when I was feeling blue I looked at her and realized she was trying to talk to me (Aoki means pine tree). The tree’s long beautiful needles danced in the breeze as if soothing me and when I was depressed, they shook like pom-poms cheering me on.

I looked at this huge mama tree and understood that our roots connect us to the Earth and the Earth connects us to one another. The only thing that heals is love and the greatest love is mother’s love because we women are the creators of the next generation so God, The Creator, must be a Mother.

This work, “Soul of The City,” is presented to you with some of my dearest friends – masters of their crafts with nothing to prove but lots to share. We are warriors – but not soldiers. We are Soulgers. We know why we are here, on this planet, at this moment in time, and we know what we must do. We will do it until we die. And even after because like all of us, our bodies return to the earth, our souls go back to Source and the actions we put into motion continue.

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