How do you even start to convey the life of Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto, a Japanese-Canadian woman who defied so many conventions and whose experiences could fill several different books and movies? The until-now little-known Powell Street resident of the early 20th century was, among other things, a tofu farmer’s daughter, a picture bride, a brothel owner, a mother, a moonshine purveyor, and an internment resister.
At Spatial Poetics XVI: Kiyo, artists will try to bring her life to light through an immersive, one-night multimedia installation with one-on-one performances in different “rooms” created in the Vancouver Buddhist Temple. In other words, the show, subtitled “Honouring the living memory of invisible lives”, takes a highly unconventional approach to a highly unconventional woman.
A team of four—performance artist Ayumi Goto, composer and double bassist Mark Haney, actor Julie Tamiko Manning, and theatre artist Lisa C. Ravensbergen—has spent a year researching and creating a multilayered show that attempts to capture the many dimensions of the figure. Mark Takeshi McGregor and Emiko Morita curated the experimental event.
“We’re all very different artists and different people and it was interesting discovering this woman together,” says Ravensbergen, who traces her heritage to Ojibwa and Swampy Cree, as well as English and Irish. “I feel like she’s enlivened a creative space within each of us performers.…But how it manifested has been incredibly organic and incredibly satisfying, truly collaborative, and artistically rigorous at every level.”
The team worked from research funded by the Powell Street Festival to find out more about Tanaka-Goto, who was born in 1896 in Tokyo and died 80 years later in Vancouver. The artists accessed a rich archive of belongings—shoes, dresses, and hats—at the Nikkei National Museum and Culture Centre; there were also photos and recorded interviews with her, many of which are being integrated into the multimedia installation.
For Ravensbergen, it was important to honour the Coast Salish protocols of witnessing. When visitors enter the immersive show, they’ll be brought into a sort of holding area that will echo the Japanese-Canadian experience of internment.
“The temple has open windows and the neighbourhood sounds will come into the space. And they will hear the sound of her [Tanaka-Goto’s] voice speaking in Japanese. So this is also an aural space,” Ravensbergen explains. “We were also thinking about containment and containers and how women were placed in containers in society. Kiyo really owned those containers: she lived in an SRO—in one room—and she raised a child.”
While audience members wait for their turns in the series of “rooms”, each representing a different stage in her life, they’ll be able to witness what is going on in those spaces through the half-skirts of traditional Japanese noren (slit fabric dividers) over the doorways.
With the visuals, the surprise encounters in each room, and the sounds of Tanaka-Goto’s voice, the show offers an experience as unique as its subject. “I love that we live in a city where there’s room for a project like this,” Ravensbergen says, “to create a space of creativity within the audience and play with theatre, with memory.”
The Powell Street Festival Society presents Spatial Poetics XVI: Kiyo at the Vancouver Buddhist Temple on Saturday (July 8) at 7:30 p.m.