Laurie Rubin and Jennifer Taira are accustomed to overcoming challenges, so when they realized that the Hawaiian students in their Ohana Arts Performing Arts Festival and School (OA) would struggle to find Asian roles in which they weren’t caricaturized, the songwriters got creative. The result is Peace on Your Wings, a new youth musical featuring an all-Asian cast. With music by Taira, lyrics by Rubin and a book by the pair, the piece originally debuted at OA in 2014 in Honolulu, HI. Now, the show makes its New York debut September 9 and 10 at the John Jay College Gerald W. Lynch Theater.
Wings is based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl who survived the Hiroshima bombings and stirred an international peace movement by folding one thousand origami cranes—one of which is on display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Rubin, who is also well-known for being a blind opera singer and the author of Do You Dream in Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight, partially credits the idea for the story to her experience as a young Jewish girl.
“When I was growing up, everything was [specific] to the Holocaust,” she says. “I see now how the Holocaust has taken over World War II history, but when I was in the eighth grade I read the book Hiroshima by John Hersey. It’s beautifully written, albeit graphic. I was like, ‘Why haven’t I heard about this before?’ I never knew what an atomic bomb could do!” The far reaching effects of genocide astonished Rubin, who found a way to share the horror of the tragedy through Sadako’s story.
Taira remembers co-writing Wings after the students at OA had just finished a production of Hairspray. “We did it with an all-Asian cast. It was kind of funny. I don’t know if the kids realize it, but there’s really nothing for Asian kids. Right now it doesn’t phase them because they don’t realize they’re minorities,” she says, considering the more homogenous demographic in Hawaii. “I really want the story to contribute to the musical theatre scene, just to have something there that portrays an Asian protagonist and her friends.”
For Shayna Yasunaga, age 15, being in OA and playing Sadako in Wings has helped her develop confidence in herself and her aspirations to perform professionally. “I was afraid that when I try to go into the business that I’ll be turned down because of my race,” she says. “Now, I don’t think that will get to me because I know that it’s difficult to get a part, especially being Asian, but with determination and being proud of who I am, I will get through it.”
Yasunaga’s growth demonstrates many of Rubin and Taira’s original goals in creating Wings. “A girl came up to me in OA one time and said, ‘I never feel pretty because the magazines never have people like me,’” Rubin recalls. “I related to that as a blind person. Nobody is a role model for a blind person out there in the media, even though there’s plenty of gifted and beautiful blind people out there. They’re not being featured the way they should be. Jenny talks about how people don’t take her seriously because she’s a Japanese woman.” Rubin and Taira believe that Wings will generate role models for Asian kids, in addition to helping their 21 actors build confidence in the face of adversity. “I’ve noticed that now that they have been performing, they’re much more at peace. It’s like they have a purpose and will be role models for others. It has given them a lot, an early sense of who they are and can be.”
After taking Wings to New York, where the cast will visit Sadako’s crane at the 9/11 Memorial, Rubin and Taira anticipate a West Coast outreach school tour. “We’re also going to partner with Stanford, and their International and Cross-Cultural Education program,” says Rubin. “They’re going to create a curriculum based on Peace on Your Wings and Sadako so that the kids will have a historical context. Kids learn in the classroom, but the best way to learn is to take them out and give them field experience. We are proponents of the idea that theatre for youth should also be theatre by youth.”
Peace on Your Wings plays September 9 at 7 PM and September 10 at 2 PM and 7 PM at the John Jay College Gerald W. Lynch Theater (524 W. 59th St.) Tickets are $35/$25 general admission; $15 for students. Click here to purchase.
Iris Wiener is an entertainment journalist. Her work appears on Playbill.com and in TheaterMania, Long Island Woman and Long Island Herald, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Iris_Wiener or visit her at IrisWiener.com.