‘Great Wave’ leaves audiences at sea with murky central theme, takeaways.

Berkeley Rep/Courtesy

Related Posts

Striving to investigate the up-and-down moral complexities of performing citizenry, Francis Turnly’s play “The Great Wave” sets sail at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre this September. While splashy graphics and high-rising set design buoyed the show’s intriguing interrogation of personhood versus nationhood, a bogged-down script, rife with contrived waterworks, prevent its more interesting tangents from fully surfacing. 

Spanning 20 years in total, the play opens in 1979, when sisters Reiko (Yurié Collins) and Hanako (Jo Mei) returned home from school. The thought of a dare sends Hanako out the door to the beach, and a storm — a great wave, if you will — sweeps her away into the night. 

Turnly, who is of Northern Irish and Japanese descent, offers a critical perspective on the significance of learning a nation’s past atrocities. His characters offer impassioned monologues advocating for remembrance, from Tetsuo (Julian Cihi) clutching the storefront sign of a shuttered family business — “They think they can just forget us?” — to Hanako’s moments of cultural education, in which she learns about her own nation’s history while locked inside a North Korean bunker.

“What did I do? I must have done something,” Hanako asks early during her imprisonment, pleading to be released. The reply comes a few scenes later as an outburst from her guard and handler, Jung Sun (Cindy Im). “You think you have suffered? That is nothing compared to what Japan did to my people in the war!” 

The play’s faint allusions to Japanese war crimes and Korean comfort women sketch ley lines around how national trauma, inflicted upon individual citizens, is a thoroughly self-effacing force. Hanako is made to reinvent herself in North Korea, learning the language and swearing fealty to Kim Jong-il until the lines blur between performance and conviction. 

The staging of language acquisition within the play is especially inspired. While most of the dialogue occurs in unaccented English, characters meant to be speaking a language more foreign to them adopt stereotypical accents. Audibly illustrating her progress with Korean, Hanako first trips over English syllables with a heavy Korean accent, rounding out the consonants and slurring over vowels before phasing into her normal speaking voice. 

Language and accents, so often used as defining barriers between nationalist designations in us-and-thems, fall away within the play. Unified by the English their script is written in, fluent Japanese and Korean speaking characters sound indistinguishable. Accompanying that artistic license are time-marking title cards in Japanese, Korean and English that visually swirl into one another throughout the show. They uphold an obliteration of cultural differences as wave graphics rise and fall against digitized images of beachside pebbles, wearing them down into uniform smoothness with Miyazakian flair. 

Citizenship, that vague arbitrary ideal, cannot be transferred but it can be perfectly performed. The taciturn Jung Sun spends the first act doing just that, tilting her head and turning her lips up into a wide smile as Hanako, on her orders, coaches her to “act Japanese.” “I’m from Nagoya,” she says, beaming and accentless after months of practice, and she is almost believable. As one character explained late in the show, spreading his hands to indicate the individual’s powerlessness, “our governments are not so different.” 

To the show’s detriment, the themes of cultural confluence become utterly lost in a sea of diverging plot points. The play spends much of its three-hour runtime vacillating between scenes that variously resemble a romantic comedy, a police procedural, an action thriller and a family drama, resulting in a shoddily-bound package that feels both emotionally exhausting and unsatisfying. Characters cried and screamed and cried some more, yet few sobs moved the audience to follow in their lead — the tearful twists were either already given away or foreshadowed so heavy-handedly as to be visible an ocean away. 

As the curtains close on sisters and would-be sisters — on Reiko and Hanako, on Japan and the Koreas — the play advocates that the individual (and perhaps even a nation of individuals) can learn to live with their trauma while remembering the past. It argues that it takes a personal selflessness, or a unified sense of nationhood, to carry turbulent histories onward after being swept away. It is a worthwhile message, if one that has been alternatively waterlogged by the characters’ manufactured drama. As the San Francisco Comfort Women Memorial marks its second anniversary this month, a year after Osaka, Japan severed its sister city ties over the installation, one hopes that more watertight tales will follow this great wave in exploring the implications of cultural penance and amnesia.

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].