Featuring performers with disabilities from the US and Japan, Phamaly Theatre Company’s musical HONK bridges the divide between languages, cultures and abilities.
Storytelling can bridge the divide and foster understanding between cultures, languages and even abilities, making it a powerful tool for uniting communities.
That’s what the US-based disability-affirmative Phamaly Theatre Company did when it took its production HONK to Japan for the True Colors Festival in February 2020. The musical, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling, brought together performers with disabilities from the US and Japan.
This collaboration was most clearly represented by the character of The Cat, played by Ken Kanokozawa, who has hearing loss, and Sam Barrasso, who is blind.
“At first, I imagined that we’d switch positions and perform one person at a time,” Kanokozawa told the Arvada Center. “But when we began the rehearsal, we were told that it’d be two people, constantly moving at the same time. I was quite surprised.”
The actors overcame challenges, including the language barrier between Japanese and English, to get in character.
“At rehearsals, I vocalized my best possible English, and Sam tried her best to speak to me,” Kanokozawa continued. “But there were definitely frustrating moments at the beginning where I thought, ‘We can’t communicate.’… However, as we continued to rehearse without relying on words, our feelings started to resonate. As they say, communication doesn’t always have to be spoken. We rehearsed using our body language, and that communicated our feelings.”
HONK premiered for a two-week run in Colorado, USA, where the Phamaly Theatre Company is based, before making the journey to Japan. More than 1,000 people watched the two performances at Tokyo’s Toshima-Ku Art and Culture Theatre, with the majority of the audience comprising people with disabilities. Sign language, audio description and closed-captioning were provided in both English and Japanese. Further, pre-performance ‘touch tours’ were offered so that visually impaired theater-goers could touch and feel the sets, props and costumes ahead of the show, audio guides and hearing aids were available for hire, free admission was given to caregivers and there were designated seating areas and wheelchair access.
“We wanted to demonstrate the talent and extraordinary humanity that people with disabilities have, in the same way that people who don’t have disabilities have. I wanted this to be a production filled with joy and talent and love, so that between our countries, and between our cultures, we can all be supporting each other from thousands of miles away,” explained Phamaly Artistic Director Regan Linton.