Interview by Damien Davis
iona rozeal brown: So I also feel like a lot of what struck me about early imagery of geisha was that they are children. They are all children. If you look at the turn of the century photos of geisha; you can tell that no one cared about them.
I think that women who are brought up to follow a protocol, and who don’t have any early childhood trauma feel like they have the ability to look down on geisha and prostitutes. Though I don’t claim to know anything about what it must be like to be a prostitute or a geisha, I understand that very well could have been me.
Damien Davis: Or any of us.
Exactly. So, because so many kabuki plays have these kinds of characters in them, often played by Bando Tomasaburo because he plays these women’s roles, for me it just made sense.
That’s where the House of Ninja sort of fits in, because they are participating in this idea of not only personifying someone of a different gender, but learning to mimic an ideal of something that is totally different from what they are, and making it believable.
We’re going to give you a whole other gender, you’re not a woman, but you’re a “woman style.” and what they are doing is bringing you a form of femininity. That is exactly what voguing is doing.
Willie Ninja talks about mimicking these models, but they are not trying to be these women, they are giving you their interpretation of a kind of feminine movement. That is why it works. Because women can’t do that. When Bando Tomasaburo walked out on stage, at eleven years old I was done. I had never seen a woman move like that in my life. I couldn’t understand why. At that time, I thought, “she’s beautiful; I want to learn to move just like that.” I did a very similar thing when I saw Willie Ninja walking in heels.
But, we all knew that hyper-stylized femininity borders the line of comical when a woman does it.
It’s a caricature. This hyper femininity. This ideal.
Exactly. An ideal, an idea…
Very much so. And it works.
So let’s talk about Benny Ninja. I know that Javier is someone you wanted from the beginning. How did Benny factor into this?
Well we got Javier, and actually this started with Javier’s character, the princess. I was still trying to figure out what else the piece needed. Before I even had it locked down, Javier brought Benny by.
That was the smartest thing that could have happened. I adore him. He is amazing! And when we were watching kabuki together, he said he felt the same thing he felt the first time he saw voguing. I thought, this is a match made in heaven.
He’s got a pretty big following. He’s been a coach on America’s next top model…
Exactly. I knew who he was. But as an artist, I can be very rigid.
What do you mean?
Javier’s character was the only one I had in my mind. In the beginning I envisioned it being all B-boys. I had to really dig deep into my experience in Japanese and Noh theatre, looking at the characters depicted in wood block prints and such.
I was actually working on my own demons. I started looking at the myths, and realized I needed to bring Benny into this for it to make sense. I got a better understanding of the potential that Benny had.
It added another layer to the performance.
I did these drawings of Willie Ninja and Bando Tomasaburo, and it became very important for me to give tribute to them. I just thought it would make sense.
Okay. So we’ve got RoseLee, and the House of Ninja. But there are all of these B-girls who are amazing in their own right. How did they get involved with the project?
Well, I originally wanted B-boys. When I wrote the play it was with B-boys. Once I got Javier, things started to change up a little bit, and he was like, “I could give you some B-girls.” At first I said no, but then I thought about it, and realized that kabuki was started by women. Women played the male roles and everything. Then I thought that it might balance things out.
So was it an open casting call?
Javier brought Roka in, and then Roka brought the rest of them in. the whole thing was very in-house.
Roka seems to have really taken on a leadership role in the group, in terms of figuring out the choreography, and supporting the concepts behind the project.
It’s funny, because this is the first time that I’ve done anything like this. I’ve never worked with anybody, let alone dancers. I remember hearing about when Spike Lee made School Daze, he had all of the jigaboos, (dark skinned women) in less than desirable housing than the light skinned actresses, and I thought that was genius. Manipulative, but genius. I think what I recognized was that a creative person didn’t want to leave to chance that even in a second somebody could come out of character.
So, I turned to Roka, and her character is the only one of the B-girls that I had already painted. I didn’t realize when I was writing it out that’s who Roka was when the myth sort of fell into place.
I think that once you are in the creative mode, you kind of owe it to yourself to just sort of sit back and let it tell you what it needs. Like with painting, it’s not about what you want, but what the painting wants, what the painting needs.
That being said, with Roka, once I realized who she was within the myth, I realized she was going to be the go- to person. Even in the way that she moves, it’s different from all of the others. And I wanted that. She’s amazing. She’s phenomenal. I love her energy. Part of the thing that’s so cool about this project is working with native New Yorkers.
I have so much respect for people who were born here and that are still here. Still here in the sense that they are here living, working…
And surviving. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. So with Roka, here is a woman, who was born and raised here, and she’s a dancer on top of that, and she’s phenomenal. She’s her own legend. She’s legendary. She’s another one of those people that shines too bright.
But the other girls, there are all really strong too. They have all learned to incorporated their strengths and styles into the project as well.
They have all been amazing.
The other part for me that is amazing is that they have been so patient with me, and understanding and respectful of my process. All I want is for everyone to be able to benefit long-term from it. And this is the thing with Roka. I’m so out of my element…
But she’s you’re geisha girl.
I feel like she, Javier, and Benny are all very similar in that geisha aesthetic. They have been a plethora of knowledge to me. I love dancers. I don’t dance, at all.
I think for me the rush is in being able to say anything to them, and they know what I’m talking about. When I go to the club and watch these people, I can’t do that. But in my heart, I’m dancing the same way.
To read part one of iona rozeal brown’s interview, click here.
Photos by Paula Court.