Tokyo Rose is a seamless, succinct sum-up of Asian-American identity and anti-East Asian racism in the West. It gives off Hamilton vibes, telling the story of an American figure through fast, punchy songs. Rather than the Founding Father though, the musical focuses on the overlooked story of Iva Toguri, a Japanese-American woman unjustly imprisoned for mistakenly being identified as ‘Tokyo Rose’, a radio broadcaster spreading Axis propaganda and a traitor to America. Except Iva was always faithful to America, despite its constant rejection of her, and she refuses to renounce her US citizenship, even as the state pressures her to.
Japanese Maya Britto plays naive Iva Toguri, a fitting casting for a victim of anti-East Asian racism rejected by America, her ‘home’. Anglosphere theatre doesn’t provide many opportunities for East Asians in general, let alone those whose native language isn’t English, but both Britto and her co-actor Lucy Park, who is Korean, have overcome those barriers. Park proves additionally that she can power through an hour of a musical in her second language, her beautiful soprano singing aiding her. Maryhee Yoon, one of the writers, uses her personal input to concretise an East Asian woman in the West undergoing an identity crisis as she is antagonised by both countries she calls home, perfectly describing what most East Asian-Western diaspora feel – that they are the ‘piggy in the middle’.
An all-female multi-role musical, the actors play a multitude of characters. What might have been a subsequently confusing musical is saved by powerful lyrics that convey poignant messages. What is so intriguing about the musical is that it is amazingly relevant, given how racism in America has continued since its creation. Internment camps, which remain in the living memory of Japanese-Americans, continue to this day as concentration camps in America, tearing immigrant kids away from their parents. Before these were Native American ‘Boarding Schools’, an attempt to assimilate those whose land was stolen to make America.
The musical shows sequences of Iva singing the American national anthem during class, and it’s immediately obvious that she’s raised on the false notion of the American dream. Although Iva believes America to be a ‘land of the free’ that will accept her regardless of her Japanese heritage, America’s ruthless history itself foreshadows her tragic fate. Although the audience is not surprised to find that America eventually betrays her trust, it’s still painful to see the confusion this brings to her, brilliantly and emotionally portrayed by Britto. Iva is forced to confront the fact that America will never accept her as American, and will distrust her for ‘looking Japanese’.
This is a universal story that will wring the hearts of many East Asian-Western diaspora in the audience.
Image: Burnt Lemon Theatre