“Lady Mu and the Yang Family Generals” is a fitting production to mark Kennedy Theatre’s 50th Anniversary, as this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Jingju (Beijing “Opera”) performance at the University of Hawai‘i.
UHM alumna and professor of Asian Theatre Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, who has served as director of the department’s Asian Theatre program since 1985, began presenting Jingju in the 1984-85 academic year, with the play “The Phoenix Returns to Its Nest.” The play would go on to tour China in 1986 — the first English-language Jingju to do so. (Two later productions have also toured China.) Wichmann-Walczak was the first non-Chinese Jingju performer in the People’s Republic of China, and is the first non-Chinese member of the National Xiqu (Chinese “Opera”) Association. With her guidance, Kennedy Theatre has presented a Jingju play every four years since 1985.
These plays spring from a remarkable partnership between UHM and professional Chinese Jingju performers, and are the culmination of extensive training in this traditional art form. Shen Xiaomei, a National Actor of the First (highest possible) Rank, a former student of legendary Jingju master Mei Lanfang, and Wichmann-Walczak’s performance teacher, has served as Artistic Supervisor for all eight productions that Wichmann-Walczak has directed.
For this production, student actors have spent over six months under the tutelage of Lu Genzhang and Zhang Ling, both National Actors of the First Rank and emeritus lead actors with the Jiangsu Province Jingju Company. (Please note that names of artists from China are presented in the traditional Chinese manner, with last/family name given first.) Training includes physical technique and carriage, combat, and acrobatics, as well as vocal training in both da sangzi (“large” voice) and xiao sangzi (“small” voice or falsetto). Training begins with Chinese text, before moving to an English-language translation of the play developed by Wichmann-Walczak and Hui-Mei Chang, a Punahou School faculty member and UHM alumna. This production will mark the translation’s world premiere. Student musicians spend their time studying with Zhang Xigui, Principal Instrumentalist with the Wenhuali Jingju and Kunqu Association of Shanghai, and Emeritus Leading Instrumentalist with the Jiangsu Province Jingju Company. All of these artists have taught and performed in China and internationally.
Performances will take place Feb. 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, and Mar. 1 at 8 p.m., and Feb. 23 and Mar. 2 at 2 p.m. Audiences will also have the opportunity to attend free pre-show chats at 7 p.m. on Feb. 22 and Mar. 1. Purchase tickets at Kennedy Theatre.
For detailed program information, see the original UH Manoa press release.