by Gail M. Burns, July 2006
Born in Kyoto, Yuki Kato (1881-1963) was the daughter of a Samuri sword-maker, an honorable profession, but one that was on the wane in the latter part of the 19th century. Yuki and her sister were both sold to be Geishas to help support the family. By the time Yuki began her Geisha training her sister was already well-established in the business and with her assistance Yuki became a popular Gion Geisha known as Kokyuu no Sekka. This was how she met George Dennison Morgan, second son of George Hale Morgan and Sarah Spencer Morgan, builders of Ventfort Hall. He pursued her for years before she agreed to marry him in 1903.
During her lifetime, O-Yuki never visited Ventfort Hall. The Morgan family did not approve of their son’s interracial marriage and gave O-Yuki the cold shoulder from the start, making the early days of her marriage in American a misery. But thanks to playwright Natsuko Ohama, actress Ikuko Ikari, and director Sarah Taylor, O-Yuki is now a welcome guest in her in-law’s summer cottage, as the play Morgan O-Yuki: Geisha of the Gilded Age is being performed in the mansion’s Great Hall now through September 3 under the auspices of Shakespeare & Company.
O-Yuki was a notorious woman during her long life, especially in her native Japan where novels and a musical play were written about her scandals. Her life was constant tabloid fodder, and during the play Ikari constantly reads from and the shreds newspaper clippings, placing them in a small bowl where they come to represent her name – Yuki means “snowflake” – as she scatters them across the stage at the play’s conclusion.
Shunned in both Japan (O-Yuki lost her citizenship when she married Morgan) and America, the couple found a happy home in France, although they lived the jet-set lifestyle long before the jet was invented and were frequently separated by travel. Morgan was alone in Spain when he died of a heart attack in 1915, leaving O-Yuki a woman without a country, and with many financial and legal battles ahead of her. O-Yuki stayed in France until 1938 when she returned to Japan. After Morgan’s death she had converted to Catholicism and was baptized at the age of 73, taking the Christian name of Theresa in honor of her favorite Saint, Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) – “The Little Flower.” O-Yuki spent her remaining years as a devout Catholic in Kyoto’s Murasakino.
This is a first play for Ohama, a founding member of Shakespeare and company and a respected Linklater voice teacher, and she has done a fine job of giving O-Yuki a strong yet believably Japanese voice. This is in no small measure due to Ikari’s the luminous performance in the role. Ikari, a Japanese actress who has been living and working in New York City for the past eight years, endows O-Yuki with great beauty, grace, and humanity. Ikari was able to read and translate a Japanese biography of O-Yuki that enabled Ohama and Taylor to expand and enhance the play considerably.
Ohama’s script allows O-Yuki to speak openly about her feelings for Morgan, who she initially did not love, for the Japanese student who abandoned her when the scandal surrounding her name became to great, for her distaste for the Geisha life, and the ultimate peace she found in the Catholic Church. While O-Yuki remains suitably modest and demure, she is portrayed as a woman of strength and convinction.
I found Ikari’s performance moving and enthralling. She held my attention completely from the moment she appeared on the grand staircase in Ventfort Hall until she finally scattered the foolish fragments of her public life.
There was a mother with two pre-teen daughters at the performance I attended, and Ikari looked directly at the girls as she delivered the lines in which O-Yuki remembers her own sale into the Geisha life at the age of ten, her period of training during her early teens, and how her sister negotiated the bidding in order to get the best price for O-Yuki’s innocence. These things happened to O-Yuki when she was the same age as those girls sitting in the front row, and they are still happening to girls and young women all over the world. While Ohama had given Ikari soft and gentle ways to say unspeakable things, the message was clear.
This exquisite collaboration between Ohama, Ikari, and Taylor has produced the purest kind of intimate theatre, and gives a poignant glimpse into an intriguing life. I wish the play had been just a few minutes longer to cover the final years of O-Yuki’s life in Japan during and after the Second World War, and during her conversion experience, but 70 minutes is a long time for one performer to hold the stage and I was willing to let Ikari step behind the curtain and rest. I only wish I could read Japanese so that I could learn more about O-Yuki myself.
The Great Hall at Ventfort Hall provides the backdrop and palatial surroundings, but Carl Sprague has done a nice job of giving Ikari a small but flexible playing space. The Geisha tradition is one of small, gliding movements, and Ikari appears to be quite still and centered although she moves about the little set of risers and interacts with various props and set pieces continually.
Govane Lobauer has designed beautiful and flexible costumes for Ikari, incorporating two beautiful kimono contributed by Amanda Bouquet. She goes through three fluid costume changes in the course of the show, taking her from Geisha to Parisienne Fashion Plate to modest widow.
Arrive a little early to take a look around the mansion and enjoy the exhibit “Japan, the Gilded Age and You!” from the private collection of Dr. Robert and Marcia Brown.
Morgan O-Yuki: Geisha of the Gilded Age will be performed at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, 104 Walker St., Lenox. Performances are scheduled for December 26, 27, 30 & 31 at 4 p.m. December 28 & 29 at 3:30 & 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $20 and reservations are strongly recommended. The show runs an hour and ten minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. For reservations and information please call the box office at 413-637-3206
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006