Women warriors the yin of Yangs
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By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Wayne Harada
Jingju, sometimes called Beijing or Peking opera, is steeped in tradition and thus remains one of the most challenging of art forms.
In Hawai'i, the jingju journey has been under way for the past six months for "Women Generals of the Yang Family," hailed as one of the most famous jingju plays of the last half-century. It makes its American debut in English tonight at Kennedy Theatre.
"It's the first of what they call a newly created historical play," said director Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, the most knowledgeable local expert on jingju, who, with Hui-Mei Chang of China, translated the work for its English-language premiere.
"Women Generals," based on a historical novel, has been produced as a feature film in China. Set during the reign of Emperor Song Renzong (dating back to 1022), it depicts a period when the nation's fate was placed in the hands of women generals after the death of Gen. Yang Zongbao. The general's son, Yang Wenguang, also plays a part. Characters include the general's widow, Mu Guiying; his mother, Princess Chai; and the Yang matriarch, She Taijun.
"I first saw this play in 1984 in Beijing," said Wichmann-Walczak, who knew it was right for the cycle of Asian theater staged at Kennedy. "It had so many female roles and an incredible combination of songs, elegant acting and dancing. Combined with that, there were spears and swords and halberds; and thus, the production required two different kinds of performance skills, the traditional singing speech as well as dance combat action."
The production entails traditional and lyrical elements, which Wichmann-Waclzak calls civil; and more animated, rigorous, almost combative sequences, which she dubs martial, to fill the eyes and ears of viewers. For Hawai'i audiences, "Women Generals" will be the first with elaborate combat sequences.
Because of the precise training and ritual of the Chinese form, one role Mu Guiying, the wife/widow of the general killed in combat will be performed by two actresses, Annie Lipscomb and Jessica Jacob.
Lipscomb stars in Act I, Jacob in Act II. Lipscomb had to be particularly skilled in the lyrical, graceful delivery and dance of traditional jingju, which characterizes the opening act. The second half, featuring Jacob, is dominated by martial arts and battles, requiring a more athletic and physical form.
"It's a very challenging technique," said Lipscomb, who is making her jingju debut. "The first act, in a civil setting, is primarily about relationships of the characters, and the backstory includes the relationship with the husband character."
Lipscomb, a dance major, said working at her character meant a different approach than in western theater. "In terms of your breath and placement of sounds, you use your resonators; you cannot force yourself into a jingju mode, it emerges," she said.
Lipscomb's costumes with water sleeves, suggesting style and grace are perhaps iconic of traditional civil jingju.
When Jacob becomes Mu Guiying, she is in a totally different landscape, reinventing the character as a battlefield dynamo.
"My training has been focused on stage combat," said Jacob. "I'm in a predominantly fighting role, more swashbuckler than earlier, and will have morphed into a fierce manifestation of the earlier image."
The warrior is characterized by four flags that extend about 2 feet out into the air, like a backpack, Jacob said. "You might say that the flags, as well as two 6-foot pheasant feathers coming out of a crown, symbolize women in battle," she said of her role as a field commander.
Jacob, publicity director for the University of Hawai'i-Manoa's Department of Theatre and Dance, said audiences might be confused at first about the Mu Guiying role because two performers play her very differently and in very different costumes.
"The character appears in a cycle of plays. She's a hero in earlier tales, and she's a great woman warrior," said Jacob.
The production's 26 actors play about 40 roles. They trained last summer with three artists from Jiangsu province: Lu Genzhang and Zhang Ling, both National Actors of the First Rank and emeritus leading actors with the Jiangsu Jingju Company; and Zhang Xigui, a National Instrumentalist of the Second Rank and an emeritus leading instrumentalist with Jiangsu Jingju.
Reach Wayne Harada at email@example.com.