I do love long, explanatory play titles. Julia Izumi’s play, in its entirety, is called All the Different Ways That Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died Before Opening Japan But Didn’t.
There’s something about a title taking up more space than we are used to that feels bold and gutsy. And this show may be small but it is mighty like it’s verbose title.
At 35-minutes, it is a clever short theater-film hybrid about colonizers, whiteness, empire, and the mental space these things take up.
It is staged in a co-production with New Georges by the inventive Theater in Quarantine co-directors Joshua William Gelb and Katie Rose McLaughlin with playful animation by Caroline Voagen Nelson and punctuated with Renee Yeong’s bubbly sound design.
Mixing text, collage-style animation, live performance, and personal narrative, Julia Izumi’s piece is both revenge fantasy and frustrating lament.
In a stylistic homage to Edward Gorey, she imagines all the delightful and delectable ways Commodore Matthew Perry could have died before forcing Japan open to Western trade. Perhaps his premature death could have changed the course of history.
Some are historical possibilities (a highly contagious disease of childhood, yellow fever), some comical imaginations (a big rock, a moose, adult-onset shrimp allergy), and others satirical suppositions (“yellow fever”).
Joshua William Gelb as Perry, dressed in 19th century naval splendor, acts out each of these scenes in his white box theater closet against a back-drop of animated foes. Often, the playwright is present as typewritten text, edits, and changes that appear on the screen.
But Izumi is not getting what she wants. In her killing frenzy, she finds no solace. At first, she’s nitpicking around Gelb’s performance. “Can you please do it again but feel the pain emotionally?” the typewriter commands. A befuddled Gelb asks, “A realistic performance of the pain of remorse?”
Eventually, the death scenarios cease as Gelb and Izumi (via typewritten words) end up in conversation over what is frustrating her. Perry is, at his core, just one horrible white man President Millard Fillmore picked. If he had died by pterodactyl attack, “they would have sent another guy.”
It turns out Perry had a hand in many racist, colonialist acts through the years. He was a member of the American Colonization Society which sought to colonize Africa. He was involved in naval campaigns to take Key West and he fought against Mexico. So there are a lot of folks from a lot of sovereign nations who could be angry about Perry. The lens here is not just about Japan, but Perry as a symbol of America, its attitudes at the time, and its taste for empire.
In my school years, I can barely recall a discussion of American colonization (maybe a brief sanitized mention of the Philippines) and certainly not with an eye towards the people who were invaded, displaced, or colonized. So it’s not surprising that Perry is a well-known figure in Japan to this day, but hardly thought of much here.
I found Izumi’s exploration of America’s colonizing past needed and welcome. She connects this up to the present day. Izumi herself comes on screen at the end of the show to talk about her childhood trips to Japan and the complexities of identity when family abroad can feel like strangers and yet America continues to say you don’t belong here either.
In a moment where we are having more open discussions about the racist perception of Asian Americans as “foreigners” it’s important to tie that to how America and Americans have acted for a long time about the whole rest of the globe. That glaring white supremacist lens was front and center as America seized other people’s lands.
The show makes good use of it’s format. The colorful animated sequences use cut paper, collage, and precise sound effects. Gelb, via his theater box, gets tossed and hurled around the screen—he is carried by a pterodactyl and drowned beneath waves.
Quick filmic wipes with a carriage return-like “ding” advance scenes. It’s like an elementary school film strip of never-ending death scenarios. There’s a spritely quality to these happenings while laying the groundwork for the serious historical implications. The text is snarky and impish, until it cannot be anymore.
It’s Izumi’s earned exhaustion, about Perry, America, colonization, and the persistence of the damage this has wrought, that lingers beyond the confines of the show.