“The Nosebleed,” Aya Ogawa’s sly, strange and ultimately rewarding autobiographical play that’s at the Japan Society through October 10, focuses on Ogawa’s long-dead father and their failed relationship. But Ogawa’s five-year-old son is the one who gets a nosebleed in the play. So why is this the title?
The answer: The nosebleed, like “The Nosebleed,” is about vulnerability and about failure.
The specific incident illustrates the son’s vulnerability when his older brother punched him in the nose, and the mother’s feeling of failure: This happened on the first night that Ogawa had taken these American-born children on a summer visit back to Japan, because a friend had persuaded the playwright that the children should become bilingual. “Why did I bring my kids here?” Aya the character laments, suddenly filled with self-doubt.
In the play as a whole, it’s Ogawa’s failure and vulnerability, but also the vulnerability and failure by Ogawa’s father, the performers…even the audience members.
I’ve come on my own to this explanation of the title – it’s not spelled out for us – and it is just one example of Ogawa’s artful use of indirection and metaphor throughout “The Nosebleed.” It takes a while to realize the play is relentlessly driving home its themes of failure and vulnerability, because so much of it seems to be informal, light, random, digressive, its characters chatting about things like the TV series The Bachelorette.
Aya Ogawa, a Tokyo-born, Brooklyn-based playwright, director, performer and translator, goes by the pronouns she/they. Aya is certainly a “they” in the play — portrayed by four performers, not including Ogawa, who instead portrays Aya’s son and Aya’s father. Before they take on their roles of Ayas 1 through 4, the performers introduce themselves by sharing small, mostly amusing personal stories of failure. Kaili Y. Turner tells a story of a bad date. Drae Campbell tells the story of a bad dog. (In both cases, vomit is involved.)
A sixth performer (Peter Lettre) makes an odd cameo about halfway through the play, interrupting the story the Ayas are telling about the bloody summer trip to Japan. There doesn’t initially seem much point to his brief presence, other than to demonstrate that white men can be clueless and obnoxious. The father of a schoolmate of one of Aya’s children, he marvels at how Aya doesn’t have an accent, because so many Japanese people he knows can never get rid of theirs; then he mispronounces Aya’s name. On reflection, the interruption indirectly illustrates Aya’s vulnerability – and by extension the vulnerability of all immigrants, people of two cultures, non-binary people, women. It’s no accident that the other five performers are women and/or non-binary.
The episode of The Bachelorette — not just discussed, but dramatized — features Rachel, the first Black bachelorette (portrayed by Aya 4, Campbell), and one of her contestant-dates, Dean (Aya 1, Haruna Lee.) They’ve gotten to the point in the TV show where the remaining candidates are supposed to bring Rachel home – and Dean confesses he hasn’t talked to his father for two years. He and Rachel get into a conversation about whether it is his responsibility to mend a relationship that his father broke in the first place (or never nurtured.)
It is a question that the Ayas (and Ogawa) ask of their relationship with their own father, whose cold detachment is made as vivid as his eccentricities. (Ogawa is excellent in the role.) He collected radio cassette players and Members Only jackets and lots and lots of chairs. He liked to draw pictures of Princess Diana. He kept his back to his family, literally, busy at his desk.
The scenes with Aya’s father – which are presented after serious, realistic scenes with a doctor, and a funeral director – eventually reveal his own vulnerability. The Ayas confess to their failure to respond with kindness, or honor their father after his death (no memorial service, not even a free obituary in the local paper.).
The playwright directly involves the audience in the freighted father-child relationship – asking us throughout the play for a show of hands on such questions as whether we hated our father or loved our father, and then asking us to write on a piece of paper “unasked questions or any unsaid words” that we have for our father, whether or not he’s alive.
It’s easy for this activity to make a theatergoer feel vulnerable; that, again, may be the point (although nobody forces you to raise your hand or fill out the paper.) But “The Nosebleed” takes that vulnerability, and funnels it to a final scene, involving audience participation, Buddhist funeral practices, and Princess Diana. It’s a scene that’s solemn and surreal, funny and beautiful, theatrical and purposeful. Its purpose is to turn the artists’ and audience’s sense of vulnerability, and of failure, into healing.
Japan Society through October 10
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
Written and directed by Aya Ogawa
Set and Costume Designer: Jian Jung. Lighting Designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew . Set, Costumes & Props Assistant: Karen Loewy Movilla
Cast: Drae Campbell, Haruna Lee, Peter Lettre, Aya Ogawa, Saori Tsukada, Kaili Y. Turner
Photographs by Brian Rogers
Captions in bottom gallery
Left: Aya Ogawa as Aya’s father. Right top: Haruna Lee, Saori Tsukada, Drae Campbell, Kaili Y. Turner. Middle: Haruna Lee as Aya 1, Ogawa as Aya’s father. Right bottom: Saori Tsukada as Princess Diana, Ogawa as Aya’s father; Bottom: Haruna Lee, Drae Campbell, Kaili Y. Turner