DramaLondonReviewVAULT Festival

Baaba’s Footsteps – VAULT Festival, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Susan Hingley

Director: Ragga Dahl Johansen

 Generations reaching out across the years, parallels drawn from what has been to what will come, and uncovering family history of harm and struggle are massive areas for dramatic exploration. There’s potential for a slam dunk here with a story of two Japanese women, separated by a century but bound by a journey from their homes in Japan to seeking a new life in San Francisco. Useless tangents, blurry points of argument, missed opportunities and dropped threads conspire to rob the potential from this show, leaving us with a hope of what could have been.

Under pressure to find a husband, and after a betrayal and dismissal at work, Yu heads to San Francisco on her mother’s behest with a copy of her great grandmother’s diary in hand. 100 years earlier, she had gone as a 16 year old picture bride (married to a picture of a man she then travelled to the States to meet for the first time) and started the American branch of the family. Through this set up, we start to explore not only modern marital pressures and growing unpleasant feelings towards foreigners in the US, but also the challenges of immigrant struggle in pre-war US. Within the show’s hour, neither is uncovered to any great satisfaction.

As one gets drawn into the tough life of the immigrant farmers, it keeps getting interrupted by the modern story’s awkward interjections. Yu’s bad date stories, and badly-shown good date stories, are too plain to act as a foil to the difficult marriage of the great grandma. The lines between institutional racism of the US laws about work, pay, landownership and liberty for Japanese and some other non-white people until mid-20th century are stretched and sketchy. Trump references both lay it on too thick and also act as a lazy shorthand for how the modern US treats people. As with most plays that contain them, we could easily have been spared the dream/nightmare sequence.

There’s art to the scene and character changes, and to some of the choreographed performances (though again, not the dream sequence) which do a lot to draw us into the story. But ultimately Susan Hingley’s layout of this story, the highlights it proposes and even the supposed comparisons between the two ages are a challenge to get on board with. It feels there’s two great stories here – one about modern Japan and a pressure for women to marry, the other about the Japanese experience as unwelcome immigrants then enemies of the state as WW2 hit. Mashing them both together does no one any favours.

Runs until 15 March 2020

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