LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
One year ago today, Japan suffered a shinsai - an earthquake disaster. And on today's anniversary, theater artists around the United States and the world are coming together to help their counterparts in Japan with a project also called "Shinsai." Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: It all began with Japanese-American actor James Yaegashi. He grew up in Sendai, Japan, just forty miles from the epicenter of the earthquake.
JAMES YAEGASHI: Once I was able to confirm everybody I knew was accounted for, then of course, I felt like, my God, I've got to do something, you know?
LUNDEN: Yaegashi, a busy New York actor, contacted playwright and actor friends to see if they'd like to create an evening of play readings to raise some money. He also went to Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York's Public Theater, to see if he'd donate some space.
YAEGASHI: And when we got together, he said it's such a good idea that it would be a shame to just sort of do something small.
LUNDEN: And from there, the project just grew. Some of the greatest talents in the American theater have donated short plays and songs to "Shinsai" - Pulitzer Prize-winners like Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tony Kushner and Stephen Sondheim. And many Japanese playwrights have contributed work, as well. Theresa Eyring is executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a national consortium of nonprofit theaters that's helping to coordinate the project.
THERESA EYRING: We have 69 theaters across the country and there are 21 states that are participating and five different countries.
LUNDEN: Theaters can participate in any way they like. They can choose to do a full evening of plays or just one or two before a regular performance. All the money raised will go to the Dramatists Guild Fund, who'll funnel it to the Japan Playwrights Association. Many artists in the Tohuku region have been left homeless and their theaters have been destroyed. The plays in the Shinsai project represent wildly divergent viewpoints and perspectives. Japanese-American playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, calls his play "Child is Father to the Man" a meditation.
PHILIP KAN GOTANDA: It's a meditation on life and death, fathers and sons and this mysterious way that we connect with our lineage, both forwards and backwards.
LUNDEN: James Yaegashi will be performing the play in New York.
YAEGASHI: We gather around the hospital bed and look at my father's body. It is 3:45 in the morning. My two brothers and I are exhausted, my mother quiet, my father looks - he's a corpse. Sunken cheeks, drawn greyish skin. I am repulsed.
LUNDEN: Librettist John Weidman says he and songwriter Stephen Sondheim have refashioned two songs from their 1976 musical, "Pacific Overtures."
JOHN WEIDMAN: "Four Black Dragons" was a song in which a fisherman in 1853 looks up and see four steam ships belching smoke, coming at him from the sea - something he's never seen before - and he's terrified. And in this adaptation, it begins with that and then jumps forward to a shopkeeper in a coastal town in 2011, who looks up and sees something equally terrifying, approaching from the sea, which is the tsunami wave.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR BLACK DRAGONS")
WEIDMAN: We then elide into "Next," which is the finale of "Pacific Overtures." Steve has rewritten the lyrics so that, in this case, it's about the Japanese response and resilience and the way in which they have been rebuilding after this calamity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEXT")
LUNDEN: James Yaegashi has been to Japan twice since the earthquake and tsunami. He says helping to get the theater community back on its feet is essential.
YAEGASHI: There's a real sort of psychological and emotional need. In Japanese they call, they need to care for the heart is what they say. So, storytelling is really relevant and needed right now. And yet, theater artists in that particular region are struggling to find how they can do that, just given all the logistical barriers that exist.
LUNDEN: "Shinsai" will be presented in two parts in New York, this afternoon and tonight at the Cooper Union in Greenwich Village, and at different times and in different venues all across the world. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEXT")
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