Becoming Tokyo Rose
by Grace Lu
Shortly after my sophomore year of college, I found myself driving to a social event more nerve-wracking than my last final had been. It was the high school graduation party of an old friend. I wish I could say this nervousness stemmed from my fear of not recognizing other guests, but in reality, it stemmed from knowing I would. I wasn’t ready to make small talk with people who had once been a big part of my life. I dreaded awkward conversations with high school friends, worried they would painfully reveal what my formerly strong relationships had been reduced to.
As I approached the venue, I thought of a previous conversation with one such friend. I’d told him I met an actor while shadowing my optometrist, joking about how the man was one of his kind; the friend is a theatre major and would land his dream role in a professional production that very year. He laughed, somewhat nervously, to my joke. “You used to be one of my kind.”
He wasn’t wrong. I was a zestful theatre kid, especially during the formative era of high school. However, college saw me purging my thespian identity, responding to theatre the way many would to a former spouse. My high school self would’ve called this a tragedy.
My last theatre performance occurred on the 365th evening of my 17th year. It required two light cues and two music cues. It called for eight set pieces and eight props. The show, with a runtime of eleven minutes and fourteen seconds, was scheduled last in a program of five performances. It had one director, one actor, and one playwright, all of whom were me.
I’m now well past my 20th birthday. My life has changed dramatically since the evening of my one-man show. I’m still a student but am no longer a theatre kid. I attend college meetings as opposed to rehearsal. Perfecting monologues is no longer a responsibility of mine. In fact, I sometimes wonder why I was so in love with the art, to begin with. But that one-man show, that literal grand finale to my childhood and high school theatre career, makes me remember.
I remember being asked to change the setting of my show and adapt the script, set pieces, and props to this change accordingly, all during the week leading up to my performance. I remember internally reciting my monologue while walking to class, cramming ten minutes of the newly revised script into my head. But more importantly, I remember my directors’ subtle hesitancy towards the source material. The show’s parameters required my monologue to be from the perspective of a historical figure, and I had chosen to perform as Iva Toguri D’Aquino.
Iva D’Aquino, better known as Tokyo Rose, was a Japanese American falsely accused of treason after World War II. D’Aquino was exiled for decades. By the time she was exonerated with a presidential pardon in 1977, the damage had been done. To older generations, D’Aquino is a traitor. To my generation, D’Aquino is an unknown figure, erased from history. I was told the audience would be either offended by or apathetic to the humanization of such a despised figure.
Empress Cixi and pirate Ching Shih were alternative characters suggested to me by peers and mentors, but something about D’Aquino’s ill-fated narrative, unbelievable resolve, and tragically tarnished reputation marked my portrayal of her as imperative. Her identity as an Asian American, which is undeniably relevant to the immigrant narrative, was also a deciding factor.
After all, the identity crisis written between the lines of D’Aquino’s story was a familiar one. I had expected my senior year of high school to be amazing, but instead, it was a relentless shattering of the crippling yet comforting naivety that coated previous perceptions of how race would affect my life.
Friends used to subtly prod me about racism in theatre after seeing my shows. After years of firmly denying their implications, it dawned on me that there was a reason lavish compliments I received from directors weren’t quite carried out through casting. And suddenly, the microaggressions I used to ignore felt paramount. Comments from peers, such as shock over me “listening to Lady Gaga and Fall Out Boy, because I thought you would listen to classical” — not that there’s anything wrong with classical music, just that it shouldn’t be surprising for such mainstream artists to be on any teenager’s playlist — felt upsetting, even threatening, to my seventeen-year-old self.
Even now that I approach my twenty-second birthday as opposed to my eighteenth, I find it difficult to articulate how those perceptions were both fought and internalized. I knew the tragic Asian female, a theatre archetype I had honed to perfection, would be insufficient for such complexity. And so, I chose to portray the late Iva D’Aquino.
The performance was a successful one. Audience members were not offended but sympathetic to the complete story behind Tokyo Rose. Although I worried my acting skills would fail to rise to the less than optimal occasion, the sliver of myself I found in D’Aquino made the monologue feel natural. Classmates were awestruck by my performance. Grandparents approached me after the show, stating, “I had no idea.”
Unfortunately, Tokyo Rose folklore is just a portion of the many narratives that provide a biased recollection of historical events. Our knowledge of history is, after all, the interpreted meaning of events as opposed to the objective recording of them. Despite this unavoidable hindrance, I learned then as a theatre kid and now as a college student that ongoing discourse over controversies, despite the uncomfortable tension it creates, is not only a preference but a necessity. Its multidimensional narrative is the only narrative that gives our realities the robust interpretations they deserve.
Despite this lesson, I avoided my inner theatre geek because it was an easy thing to do. Theatre was no longer the center of my universe. I no longer wanted to think about race in a personal context. I had my new, college life to adjust to.
The high school graduation party I attended was far from awkward. In fact, I felt more comfortable than I had at graduation parties the year before, which I didn’t realize was even possible. As a result, my world turned counterclockwise.
I woke up the next morning thinking about former theatre classmates I hadn’t remembered in years and remembering names I never thought I’d forget in the first place. The upperclassmen I once so vehemently admired are barely connected to me now, save their occasional presence on my social media feeds.
I woke up the second morning reliving my worst auditions. “Seriously, why did I do that? Maybe that’s why things didn’t work out.” I was my high school self again, confused and alone in a carefully decorated bedroom.
This relapse should have come as no surprise. If my one-man show taught me anything, it’s that bad things happen when history is ignored. Ignorance was only a temporary fix for my painful memories, yet I had thrown myself into its illusion.
I wonder if Iva D’Aquino resorted to emotional avoidance after realizing the United States had rejected her and she was unwelcome in Japan. One can make a guess, but it can’t be assumed. She has no diary, or at least not any that I know of. Regardless, the idea must have crossed her mind. It must have crept over her like an instinct. I can see it now: Iva D’Aquino shoving her identity aside to cope with her newfound statelessness. Westerners shoving her story aside to preserve their scapegoat. My seventeen-year-old self shoving her feelings aside to believe in the color-blind world she wanted to be real. The response is a universal one, I’m sure of it, but it’s an instinct we must learn to fight.
Grace Lu’s work has appeared in Dual Coast Magazine, The Fear of Monkeys, Her Campus, and The Short Humour Site. Her hobbies include cooking low-quality food and pretending she works out.