Seattle writer and very good actor Keiko Green draws the title of her latest play, Nadeshiko, from the Japanese military's World War II-era Nadeshiko unit. The government tasked these women to comfort kamikaze pilots in the days leading up to their suicide missions. As the soldiers took off from their airstrips, the Nadeshiko would wave them goodbye with blossoming cherry tree branches. Otherwise, they sewed buttons, laundered sheets, entertained, and generally embodied the ideal feminine beauty standards suggested by their pink, delicate namesake carnation. Like the flower, they were supposed to be shy, mysterious, yielding. But also like the flower, these women, as Green mentions in her generally excellent play, were tough and wild.
A spry, humorous, immediately lovable ghost-grandma played with aplomb by Ina Chang gives voice to one of these school-girls-turned-comfort-soldiers. The Theatre has metaphorically chained her to the realm of the living, and she'll only be released, the audience assumes, once she tells The Difficult and Possibly Shameful Story of Her Past.
Green weaves this historical narrative in with the story of Risa (Maile Wong), a recently unemployed young woman searching for a new job in the weird jungle of the gig economy. When she answers an ad on Craigstlist from a white man who wants to see a young Asian woman preform a sexual favor on a stool in his apartment, she begins her exploration of internet/irl sex work.
Apart from its strong and compelling premise, Nadeshiko's great strength is its cast of complex characters. (Green's talent in this regard was also on display in Puny Humans, which she co-wrote with Bret Fetzer).
It'd be easy to dismiss White Haired Man (Greg Lyle-Newton)—the anonymous character who published the Craigslist ad—as the tweedy, reptilian predator he kind of is, but Green gives him a pitiable personality and big old pathetic backstory that explains—even if it doesn't justify—his fetish. Though Risa appears naive and is emotionally unfit for the undertaking, she bravely navigates a sexual, digital marketplace dominated by men with screen names like "Twatwater69."
My favorite character is Risa's cousin and cam girl confidant, Sue (Mi Kang, who wins best performance). Though she's conflicted about perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Asian women in her sex work, she feels a real sense of agency, and she loves getting paid to yell at white men, so what the fuck are you worried about? And, she reasons, if white Americans and the tumescent johns of the internet are going to stare at her all the time because she looks different, then she may as well get paid for it.
The ways that these women's lives parallel and intersect provide plenty of structural and intellectual ballast to the play, and their stories also challenge assumptions about sex work, racism, and "the power of storytelling" in general, which is what makes Nadeshiko seem fresh and relevant and "worth the price of the ticket."
When she finally does cough up the tale of her life in the barracks of Chiran, we learn that Nadeshiko, like Sue, wasn't particularly burdened by the act of dressing up and comforting soldiers. She is burdened, however, by the assumption that she might have been ashamed of her position, and that she'd need to "tell her story" in order to "release herself" from her past sins. "Release herself" from what, though? To assume that she's haunted by her work in the Nadeshiko unit would be to assume that the work itself is shameful. But she didn't feel ashamed. She is haunted by a relationship she had with a hunky kamikaze pilot named Toshio (Josh Kenji), but she wasn't ashamed to do her part in the effort to win the war, as it were.
The people who should be ashamed of themselves, though, are the men who created the conditions that led to the formation of the Nadeshiko and to the contemporary Asian fetish culture that sprang from it. The wagers of worldwide war, the imperialists, the perpetuators of the goddamn patriarchy—those are the people who should be ashamed. To look at the Nadeshiko and think "oh those poor women" pre-victimizes a whole group of people, and weirdly participates in the fiction that they were all just submissive, yielding little flowers.
That idea, which Green embeds in Nadeshiko's every joke and gesture, allows her to critique "the system"—which implicates the audience and even the theater itself—without using all the SJW buzzwords I just used to describe it.
All that said, the script could have used another pass. Green gives over too much of the dialogue to characters explaining their own relations to each other, and also to tying up everyone's motivations in dubious Freudian bows. But her command of form and characterization, as well as stellar performances by Kang and Chang, make the slightly-too-long drama enjoyable.
And, of course, my straight white maleness may have blunted some of the raw emotional power of seeing a full cast of Asian-Americans (with the exception of one sleazeball white dude) acting out a story about the experiences of Japanese and Japanese-American women on a stage in Seattle. For what it's worth, my date, an Asian-American woman, issued several audible oh hell nos! during moments where the women were being fetishized by white men, and also several yessssses when the women asserted their power.