Three ladies stand, frozen, with microphones poised on a raised bit of stage as the audience takes their seats in the auditorium of the New Diorama. Two others sit, one each side of the stage area, still and quiet.
It’s 1949, and Iva Toguri (Maya Britto) is on trial for treason, but is that her crime or is her birth country the USA looking for someone to blame “who looks Japanese” after a bruising and demoralising war?
Based on a true story, Tokyo Rose is a brave and powerful new musical from Burnt Lemon Theatre written by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin, and directed by Hannah Benson. It is female-led and fuses rap with more traditional solos, duets, trios and ensemble songs (composed by William Patrick Harrison).
Iva Toguri finds herself an enemy alien in Japan when she is stranded looking after her aunt just as Pearl Harbor is bombed. Her choices: give up her US citizenship, which she cannot do, and broadcast on a propaganda network, which she does, lead to exploitation first by a British major loyal to the allies (Cara Baldwin, also playing the prosecutor) and then by an unscrupulous American journalist (Benson, also playing the judge) sniffing out a scoop whether true or not.
A huge hit at this year’s Edinburgh fringe, this show boasts impressive vocals and harmonies from its cast of five, and a plot which gives Iva and those around her (mother – Yuki Sutton, aunt – Lucy Park) real heart. By the courtroom scenes we are firmly on her side seeing an injustice done: her only crime her naive belief in patrotism.
Tokyo Rose does not shy away from the impact of war on anyone involved – the native Japanese, the American citizens with Jaoanese heritage, the American military, the displaced Americans in Japan. Any thought of victory is a hollow one when families die in camps or are vaporized by an atomic bomb.
Iva becomes “little orphan Ann” but her broadcasts are pitched as satire, not sedition: her words aimed against the country in which she is alien, not against the flag.
I found Tokyo Rose a vibrant piece of theatre which takes a little-known piece of history and gives a voice to its protagonist. In real-life, Toguri (as we are told in an ending round-up) was eventually cleared of her alleged crime, the Rose having been an allied invention appropriated by an opportunist hack and fuelled by xenophobia. She remained a loyal American and died in 2006 at the age of 90.
Tokyo Rose runs at the New Diorama until 12 October. It’s practically sold out, but you could try the returns queue. Production photo credit – The Other Richard.