Brenda Wong Aoki to present true ‘Forbidden Love’ story in San Francisco

Storyteller and writer Brenda Wong Aoki will perform “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend: A True Story of Forbidden Love” with Emmy Award-winning composer Mark Izu and koto artist Shoko Hikage as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival starting Thursday, May 19 at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture in San Francisco.

“In my family, I always felt that there was this secret shame. Nobody talked about it, and since nobody talked about it, I didn’t know what we did, but it was there and it seemed to taint all of our lives,” Aoki said in an e-mail interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. As she looked into her family’s past, Aoki learned about her granduncle Gunjiro Aoki and his marriage to Helen Emery, the white daughter of the Archdeacon of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

“I would have thought Gunjiro was a servant and a swindler who made off with the master of the house’s daughter, because their story was in the SF press as a signature saga of yellow peril journalism,” Aoki said in the e-mail. Through the ethnic press, however, Aoki discovered her family’s story. Her grandfather, the Rev. Chojiro Peter Aoki, was sent by the Meiji government in 1897 to help establish Sei Ko Kai, the Japanese Episcopalian church of San Francisco. Furthermore, the reverend’s brother Gunjiro was a Socialist leader and one of the founding members of the San Francisco Kendo Dojo.

The interracial marriage, however, scandalized the family. The Rev. Aoki was forced to resign from Sei Ko Kai and their family was ousted from San Francisco to Utah, where they became sharecroppers. Meanwhile, the state of California outlawed Asians from marrying whites, and Emery lost her American citizenship.

For the Salt Lake City-born Aoki who is of Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Scot-Irish descent, this came as a surprise. She had thought that her family had always been farmers, and the rediscovery of her family history fascinated her.

While Gunjiro Aoki’s story is more than a century old, his grandniece said the story is as relevant as ever. “The story could be right out of today’s headlines: Racism, profiling, inequality, displacement,” she said.

First performed in 1998, Aoki revised the story in 2007 and has once again made a revision to the piece to promote the importance of ethnic studies. “Today … I perform the story because so many ethnic studies departments are being torn down, I am amazed how little young people know about their own history,” she said.

Mixing her study of traditional Japanese theater and Izu’s study of gagaku (ancient Japanese court music), Aoki will play the role of all the characters. Hikage and Izu will accompany her with music. Aoki said this is her 40th year working with Izu, who is her husband.

“Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend” will be performed Thursday, May 19 at 8:30 p.m., Saturday, May 21 at 9 p.m. and Sunday, May 22 at 3:30 p.m. All performances will take place at the Southside Theater, 2 Marina Blvd. The May 19 performance also includes a post-show reception at 9:30 p.m., free with an opening night ticket. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door with student, senior and children discounts and are available at https://fortmason.org/box-office/?eid=12595.

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