Mark Izu assembled performers from across the United States and spent years putting together “Songs for J-Town,” but he only expected around 60 people to attend the April 23 world premiere at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco when he scheduled the show during the height of the omicron surge. Instead, more than 400 people were in the audience, many of them long-time San Francisco Japantown community members.
Izu, an Emmy-winning composer, worked with Brenda Wong Aoki, his wife and a professional storyteller, to organize the eclectic show featuring elements of swing, jazz and even traditional Noh theater in a multimedia journey that calls upon generations of Japanese Americans’ experiences, as well as the diverse communities that came together in the Japantown, Fillmore and Western Addition neighborhoods. The show finished with a remembrance of the people and places the community has lost over the years, including the poet Al Robles, the Kokusai Theater and — more recently — Hatsy Yasukochi of Yasukochi Sweet Stop.
As part of the performance, Izu installed a “sacred tree,” an arrangement of branches and peonies, in the theater’s courtyard. Attendees were asked to write down a wish for or memory of Japantown to decorate the tree. Visitors reminisced over memories of attending Nihonmachi Little Friends, eating manju from the now-closed Benkyodo and a slew of other vignettes. Izu said he wanted to leave a remembrance for George Yamasaki Jr., his pianist who passed away in February. Izu left the piano seat open in honor of Yamasaki during the show.
“I know George is here with us in spirit,” he said during the show.
For many, the show evoked memories of Japantown and hopes for an inclusive future. Rosalyn Tonai said this was her first post-COVID gathering of its kind and that it would be a memorable gathering for many years to come.
“It was excellent. It brought all those elements together, about history, family, community, J-Town, redevelopment, the anger, the magma boiling up, but at the same time — the creation of new islands — new thinking, new thoughts and a new path. So
I really love the metaphor,” she said referencing Wong Aoki’s segment on the sun goddess.
The show gave artist eryn kimura a sense of love and community.
“We always try to explain things, articulate things, but this, you could just feel and that was honestly the love through and through, and it felt deep,” she said of the show. “It felt very ancestral. It felt like something was … definitely incited from the marrow of everyone’s bones.”
Izu drew people from across the country to help with the production. His son, K.K. Aoki Izu, came from Boston to help his parents. He said it was amazing to see so many community members watch his parents perform.
“I’ve grown up watching my parents perform in Japantown, … and it’s cool to see it accumulates to this moment, especially after we’re … slowly getting through (COVID-19).”
The show featured music by Izu and his band: Jimi Nakagawa, Karl Evangelista, Mas Koga, Jim Norton and Sara Sithi-Amnuai, along with vocalist Caroline Cabading and spoken word by Wong Aoki and Devorah Major. According to Izu, the group had only gotten to practice together in-person about a week before the premiere, but Izu had worked with most of the members before and said they did not need too much rehearsal time.
“But the spirit was so good. And, Caroline, the first time I’ve worked with her, but I’ve known her for years. So, she’s a Fillmore Filipino, so I said, ‘OK,, you got to be in the show.’ And she’s wonderful. Sara was my mentee from L.A. with the L.A. Little Tokyo group. And so I enjoyed working with her so much that I said ‘You got to be part of the show,’ and play one of your songs. So she just brought her stuff up,” Izu said.
Wong Aoki said she was happy their performance brought the community together after years of isolation due to the pandemic.
“The most radical thing you can do is actually live. Be present. Find your joy where you can. I mean, that’s actually really hard. It’s so much easier to doomscroll, but I think with each other, we can continue, right?” she said. “I’ve been really sad about the tribalization of everybody, Black people with Black people and Chinese people with Chinese people, and Japanese people with Japanese people. And for those of us who are mixed race, like I’m Chinese, Japanese, Spanish Scots, but my grandpa was a founder of J-Town, so am I not a part of J-Town? … That kind of stuff used to be like, something that we’d have to fight with, but I think that’s changing too. So it just felt really, really good to have all these folks out.”
Mas Koga, who used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, returned from Brooklyn, New York to play in the one-night show with Izu. Koga, a Shin-Issei, said he has worked with Izu and Wong Aoki for close to two decades and they have taught him much. Working on “Songs for J-Town,” Koga said he learned a lot about Japanese American history and it left him with a sense of gratitude.
“My ancestors weren’t in this country, so I don’t have immediate family that was incarcerated or went through redevelopment or relocation, … luckily, I have Brenda and Mark who are directly connected to the history of Japantown and Japanese American history,” Koga said. “Through them, I learned, firsthand about their ancestors and how they were involved in the community … so these stories start taking on familiar faces. At that point, it sort of becomes my story too, and so I feel closer to the Japanese American history, even though I’m a Shin-Nikkei, so I’m really thankful for that.”
Izu said it felt good to finish the show.
“It can always be better, but it felt really good,” he said. “The intent was there. That’s what I tell everyone, it’s all about the intent. You know, you just play the intent and it all works.”