Combining her voice and the movements of her body with projected sound and images, UCI alumna Denise Uyehara captivated her audience with interwoven stories of identity, memory and cultural struggle.
Uyehara, a performance artist, writer, and playwright, appeared at UCI’s Nixon Theater on Friday afternoon to perform excerpts from two of her most acclaimed works, host a lecture and sign copies of her new book, ‘Maps of City and Body: Shedding Light on the Performances of Denise Uyehara.’
Uyehara is on campus this quarter teaching a workshop in Asian-American Performance and Writing (Asian-American Studies 115).
But the event, presented by the Department of Asian-American Studies and the Department of Drama, showcased selections from Uyehara’s performance pieces ‘Maps of City and Body’ and ‘Big Head.’
In her excerpt from ‘Maps of City and Body,’ Uyehara spoke of a childhood memory of seeing numbers on the arm of a neighbor who had survived the Holocaust. Onstage, she marked her own arms in graceful, swirling lines of blue ink as she reflected on the possible meaning of the ominous numbers that were never discussed.
‘That story haunted me for a long time,’ Uyehara said. She wanted her performance to convey the idea that ‘our bodies are like a map, [and] memories mark places we’ve been to and tell us where we’re going to go.’
Uyehara’s excerpts from ‘Big Head’ addressed the discrimination and violence faced by many Muslim, Arab- and South-Asian-Americans in the aftermath of Sept. 11. This piece linked the experiences of these groups with those of the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.
Uyehara interviewed Arab-American and Japanese-American activists for the piece, including Shady Hakim and Lillian Nakano, and used their voices as the soundtrack for her performance.
One speaker poignantly compared the shock of seeing the twin towers fall to the shock of hearing racist epithets directed toward her, each repeated television viewing of the attack and each encounter with racism giving her the same undiminished feeling of horror.
As the audience listened to these speakers’ accounts, they viewed projected images showing people at a candlelight vigil held at the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles, in late September 2001. Holding up a large piece of paper as a screen, Uyehara moved her body to capture the images of people’s faces during the vigil, and the names of the activists she interviewed.
She explained that ‘the paper captures just a fraction’ of the images, in the way ‘that memory is selective and heightens the past.’
Uyehara performed an additional segment of ‘Big Head,’ in which she projected a film that depicted a hate crime involving a group of young East Asian-Americans assaulted a South Asian-American family.
The film then transformed into a clay animation depiction of a humanlike figure writhing and recoiling while being beaten by an unseen attacker, which Uyehara interacted with onstage. She ended this segment with an urgent, emotional reaction to racially motivated violence, rhythmically repeating ‘What does it take to hate a body?’
Uyehara’s book, ‘Maps of City and Body: Shedding Light on the Performances of Denise Uyehara,’ is the first performance-related book to be published by Kaya Press, a publisher that focuses on Asian diasporic artists and has published mostly fiction and poetry in the past.
The book, which can be purchased at the UCI Bookstore, includes the full text of ‘Maps of City and Body’ and ‘Big Head,’ with stage directions printed alongside the text rather than embedded in the text.
‘The text runs simultaneously through action, which is actually how performance happens,’ said Uyehara. She sees the book as ‘another type of communication, another performance in itself, where the reader has a private dialogue with the author through the book.’
The book also includes a section on other works that Uyehara calls ‘public art investigations,’ projects enacted in public so that the audience does not know they are witnessing a planned performance. She includes instructions that act as ‘loans to help others create their own work.’
Denise Uyehara received her B.A. in comparative literature from UCI and her M.F.A. in world arts and cultures from UCLA.
Recalling her undergraduate work, Uyehara said, ‘The experience of reading texts from other countries and seeing film and poetry narratives helped add texture to my form and content.’
That texture, the layering of artistic mediums to tell a personal story that links to the perspectives of others, makes Uyehara’s performances truly compelling.
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