La Jolla Playhouse Presents SUMO in a Co-Production with Ma-Yi Theater Company

Playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring Shines a Light on the Ritual as Well as the Healing Aspects  that Embody this Art of Combat 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

(L-R) David Shih, Ryan Nebreja and Kris Bona. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

I believe that this past year and a half of theatre has been so varied and experimental, packed with new diverse works. Works that, at the absolute affirmation of sounding cheesy, have touched my heart in different ways. La Jolla Playhouse presented the world premiere of SUMO written by Lisa Sanaye Dring, in a co-production with New York-based Ma-Yi Theater Company. With the continued struggle in the performing arts, companies are looking into innovative ways to produce and present in order to lighten or bear the significant costs of putting on a show. This co-production between Ma-Yi and the Playhouse is going beyond costs and presentations as Ma-Yi's primary mission is to develop and produce new and innovative plays by Asian American writers. In the last 20 years, the company has produced New York-based playwrights. SUMO is part of a new initiative where the company now is "widening the net" to invite Asian American playwrights from all over the country as Producing Artistic Director of Ma-Yi and director of this show, Ralph B. Peña, shared in an interview for Performances Magazine which I will be referencing throughout this piece because it is sort of a roadmap to understanding this show better. And speaking of roadmaps, SUMO was part of the Playhouse's DNA series in 2021, and this to me is proof that the diverse stories are there and have always been there. Commissions are cool yet, looking into stories that are already out there, brings the true pulse of a community to the stage.

SUMO takes place in Tokyo at a dohyō which is a circle made of partially buried rice-straw bales and the wrestling ring where the action takes place and the men train. Akio (Scott Keiji Takeda) is a young 18-year-old student and the person who cleans, cooks and takes care of the sumo wrestlers. Akio observes, takes mental notes, and strives to be the best so that one day not too far away, he can be like one of the men who train there and even better. The place is run by Mitsuo (David Shih) the yokozuna (grand champion), who more often than not, takes advantage of his role and status. As Akio advances, so does his ego, compromising priorities and relationships. Life events along with true friends will aim to steer him back to his orbit. 

Kris Bona, Michael Hisamoto, and Ryan Nebreja play different roles but their main one is as part of the trio of Rikishi who guide the audience through sumo terminology, history, and plot happenings. They bring sighs of relief and tenderness between the heavier scenes. Earl T. Kim as “Shinta,” Miller Tai as “Fumio,” Adam Tran as “Ren,” and Viet Vo as “So,” the men who train at the dohyō and sumo celebrities bring different toned feelings to the mix that range from determination, to love, to frustration, and rage. 

This is a cast with all men, and I am not mad at it. Playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring writes about Japanese men through sumo, and through the training, the toughness, and how things should look like and be, also shines a light on their humanity. Sanaye Dring, who is half-Japanese, lost her mother in 2013 and a month after her death she traveled to Japan and saw a sumo match that was as revealing as it was healing. Combining this review with essay tints regarding Director of Artistic Development Gabriel Greene's interview piece on Performances Magazine, -the one mentioned in the beginning-, Lisa shares "I also find that America creates a space where Asian men have to prove their masculinity to even exist. I wanted to create a place that Asian men could just be men and be strong and not have to deal with the attacks upon their identity that inherently come with living in America.". A mindblowing statement that adds so much to the already multi-layered piece. 

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of SUMO. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

Having the play written by Lisa and directed by Ralph brings a balanced contrast that lands. Taiko Drummer, Shih-wei Wu powerfully emphasizes the scenes throughout with Fabian Obispo's crisp sound design. Wilson Chin's set design of the dohyō along sliding doors that reveal different settings in the second story, while Shih-wei is at the top of the first with his back to the audience, a creative decision that made the experience even stronger. Hana Kim's projections add a depth and cinematic quality that transport the audience to the different settings in the story pre and post-match as well as a fantastic rendition of a karaoke bar, in great synch with Paul Whitaker's lighting design. Some of Kim's designs reminded me of Yayoi Kusama's pieces with the burst of different colors and patterns.

Evidently, the creative elements are key, especially in a piece like this that is culturally specific. Mariko Ohigashi's costume design and Albert “Albee” Alvarado's wig design illustrate ranks, importance, and meaning. The approach to showing a mostly American audience the sumo art form is complex, and as director Ralph B. Peña shared "this idea of “authenticity” is such a multifaceted discussion". As a non-Japanese, non-Asian person, I believe that as an introduction, it was pretty well done and aimed to stay true by having experts such as Chelsea Pace in the intimacy staging and fight director and Cultural and Martial Arts Consultant James Yaegashi. As a person who also picks up on random things that other people don't, there is this creaking sound that comes out while the actors are walking barefoot on the rubber mat that makes the ring. That sound to me, made it even more real. Call me weird.

Lastly, I will round it out with another quote from Lisa: "I think art can be very beautiful when you’re reaching into the other with humility and compassion. But the problem is that it’s been done carelessly and with colonizing motivations/implications in the past. That is not the intent here and we are trying to represent this community with care. I'm hopeful that this piece will add more grammar to the language that we are trying to build, to ask, “How do we tell stories with each other respectfully and in a way that is healthy and empowering for our culture and for the people we're representing, given the constraints of the form?” 

I want to add that the search for replication, or lack of essentializing, is important when a play is rooted in a mass cultural trauma. Historically, we in the AAPI theatre community are usually invited to tell stories from our home lands when it teaches about a massive traumatic event. This piece is doing something different in that we aren’t proving our humanity by demonstrating our cultural pain. We are leading with our strength.". 

Hopefully, works like this, co-produced with this dynamic, will open the door to bringing more pieces that can be told respectfully and with care in a healthy way. 

When a piece is made with true intention, rooted at the heart, it resonates regardless of race, culture, or geography. 

SUMO resonated with me. 

Currently playing until October 22. For performance dates and times please CLICK HERE.

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