When I first meet Masanari Kawahara and Molly Van Avery in a tiny studio on University Avenue, Kawahara is wearing a cardboard contraption on his head that’s shaped like an atomic bomb. It’s for a new one-man show, Little Boy, named for its central character: the bomb, named Little Boy, that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 — the same city where, 23 years later, Kawahara would be born and raised. (This is, in fact, the third such work he’s created exploring Hiroshima.)
Onstage there are cardboard cut-outs of buildings and monuments spread out on the floor, along with a ladder, a sandbox, a megaphone and a few small hand puppets. When I visit, Kawahara and Van Avery show me a short section of the play they’ve been rehearsing. It begins with Kawahara sitting on top of a ladder, rubbing a drum in circles until it whistles a disconcerting sound. “Look what I can do,” he says. “Can you hear it? It’s the ocean? Do you see the ocean?”
Kawahara’s performance is playful and high energy, as if this were a kid’s show. His character reveals early on that he has a secret. “I am an atomic bomb,” he says. “They call me Little Boy.” He springs around the set with excitement, climbing on set pieces, playing in the sandbox, animating a Godzilla toy. It’s soon apparent that Kawahara is playing both himself as a little boy and “Little Boy,” the code name of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. In this context, they are one and the same.
The character of Little Boy came to Kawahara and Van Avery at a point when they were feeling a little stuck in the creative process. They had done I.N. with Mu Performing Arts, where Kawahara meets the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi on Noguchi’s Peace Bridge in Hiroshima. From there, they went on to do a work called Hiroshima with Pangea World Theater about Kawahara’s memories growing up in that city. They remember, they weren’t sure where to go next until it occurred to them that Kawahara could become the bomb himself. They first tried expressing that identity with a flat mask, which then evolved into the cardboard hat that he is using now.
In rehearsal one day, there was a breakthrough in developing the story. Kawahara as Little Boy was standing on the ladder airplane, about to be dropped, armed for detonation. “I’m just trying to pump myself up for this moment, I’m going to explode- that’s the end of my life,” he recalls thinking. Kawahara says he asked himself: “Would I [as the bomb] feel bad about this? No! He doesn’t give a shit!” He says that realization prompted the creation of a whole new kind of narrative to pursue, one not just focused on the impact of the atomic bomb but personifying it.
“Masa’s creative process is based on improvisation and playing,” Van Avery says. It’s not a writing-based process, but rather one that’s based on action. So, when it occurred to them that Masa, as both a boy and as Little Boy, could play child and bomb as one and the same “all this material kept coming into the room,” Van Avery says. “There was some freedom and excitement and fascination. It was just the newness we were looking for.”
The bomb doesn’t have a choice, Kawahara explains. “That’s what he does.” The line of inquiry into character prompted by their creative choice proved endless, and endlessly amusing. As they worked out the action of the play, Kawahara asked questions like: “Would a bomb mop?” and “How would a bomb sit?” They unpacked the relationship between Little Boy, the bomb, and Kawahara himself at various stages of his life; in so doing, they say, Avery and Kawahara wanted to investigate how all of us are able to carry both violence and compassion within ourselves.
Besides taking on childlike qualities, Little Boy also ventures into more adolescent moments, exploring sex and violence, Van Avery says. “There’s a sickness that comes with naming an atomic bomb Little Boy. We wanted to play with that sickness and power and the strangeness of this invention.”
In the rehearsal showing I saw, there were moments where Little Boy dropped character altogether. At one point, Kawahara stands on the ladder and Van Avery calls out, “do this part as a throwaway.” In that instance, Kawahara is neither child nor bomb, but rather an adult, still and grounded. And the change in energy onstage as he shifts between them is chilling.
Kawahara says that part of the impetus for the project is that he’s “getting older” and looking at his life as an artist. He spent his childhood in Hiroshima, but the atomic bomb was never spoken about, he remembers. He grew up near Peace Park, erected as a memorial for the sweep of destruction left by the bombing. Kawahara says he’s only been there twice in his life; the second time he visited, he was an adult and long since moved to the United States. “We are working with how to talk about that silence,” Van Avery says, “and having silence be part of the story.”
When he was a teenager, Kawahara learned through a casual conversation with his mother that his grandmother had been witness to the atom bomb’s aftermath. The family had lived in a suburb, but his grandmother was worried about her friend and, so, drove into the city the day after the bombing. To this day, he says he’s never spoken to his grandmother about it. His grandmother has become a character in this new piece, portrayed as a hand puppet who only speaks in Japanese and acts as a witness to Little Boy’s actions. Kawahara says, even at 92 years old, his real-life grandmother is “very fierce. … As far as I know, she saw everything. She’s like the memory that I can never touch.”
Kawahara moved to Minnesota at 19 to attend school. He says he’s always had a latent impulse to be an artist. In Japan, it just didn’t seem to be a viable option. But soon after moving here, he began working as a theater artist. He stayed, got married and the rest is history, he says. But, eventually, Kawahara realized he couldn’t escape Hiroshima anymore. “I realized it’s in my DNA, through the soil or water or whatever.” That incident in history, with all its sadness and destruction, is just a part of who he is.
It’s not a political work, Kawahara insists. Both he and Avery hope not to explain the bomb’s thought processes too much. They’re hoping audiences can find their own meaning in watching Little Boy at play; you see the devastation of the bomb through the lens of a child destroying a cardboard city. Indeed, at a showing last April, audience response to an early version of the show was mixed — the lack of specific context and direct message, the oblique storytelling and conflated characters were hard for some viewers get their arms around.
Ultimately, Avery and Kawahara are intending the cycles of creation and destruction enacted in the piece as a gesture the reaches toward healing. Unlike earlier versions of the play, this iteration of Little Boy will conclude on a note of renewal, with Kawahara in character creating a semblance of Peace Park created in Hiroshima. “At the heels of destruction, there’s creation,” Van Avery says. “That s what artists do.”
Related performance information: Little Boy runs September 19 to October 5 at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. The one-man show, written and performed by Masanari Kawahara, is being presented as part of Pangea World Theater’s Alternate Visions series. The play is directed by Molly Van Avery, with lighting design by Mike Wangen. General admission tickets are $15 ($12 for students and seniors).