nytheatre.com review by Richard Lovejoy
February 26, 2011
JapJAP is inspired by P.D. Eastman's children's book, Are You My Mother? According to the notes in the program, JapJAP is about "how we come to understand who we are in the world." The playwright/performer also cites her own struggle with physical therapy after two ACL knee surgeries in an eight year period.
Una Aya Osato has created a charming one-woman show in JapJAP, with a narrative structure taken directly from Are You My Mother? It starts with Japjap being "born" from an egg. From the moment she hatches, Japjap displays a joyful and upbeat energy.
Early on we are introduced "The Right" and "The Left," played by Osato's hands. The plot centers around these hands (which also represent their respective political allegiances) trying to determine what Japjap is. The Right takes her to The Stomach (played by Osato's stomach) which determines she must be Japanese and should be placed in an internment camp. The Left takes Japjap to Bubbie and Bubbala (played by Osato's breasts) who determine Japjap must be Jewish. Finally the Knees are consulted, bringing wisdom, clarity, and understanding.
It is a literal dialogue with the body about political issues. Like many pieces of political theatre, it is prone to cheerleading progressive ideas at the expense of a nuanced debate. Also, the fifty minute running time doesn't leave a lot of opportunity to create an in-depth exploration of complicated issues, such as Israel and Palestine. The result is that much of the political commentary ends up being nothing new to those who follow the news. It even occasionally feels a bit empty—the evolving situation in the Middle East isn't touched upon, which makes that portion of the play seem out of touch.
This is not to say that Osato doesn't have insight. The writing is quite savvy. The Stomach's dialogue is almost entirely taken from material heard on TV—re-appropriated media and news stories, television ads, etc. Throughout there are bursts of witty moments of gut-busting laughter.
People who disagree with Osato's politics might roll their eyes, but overall Osato manages to tread some potentially dangerous ground gracefully. Much of the more general and less political insight in the piece is simple and straightforward. The Knees' text is not groundbreakingly original, but it is no less effective.
JapJAP ends with a joyous burlesque number, a celebration of the body and an ultimate revolution against the classification of peoples. One of the greatest strengths of the piece is that it manages to be bright and upbeat while covering dark subject matter. This is due to Osato's performance—in lesser hands a lot of the material wouldn't land. Ultimately, I don't think JapJAP achieves all of its aspirations, but it is a charming and worthy addition to the FRIGID Festival.