Sumo is a battle of giants with its origin dating back some 2,000 years to a legendary clash of gods over the fate of Japan.
“In terms of mythology, sumo indeed goes way back to the dawn of Japanese civilization," explained James Yaegashi. "In the popular imagination, though, when we think of the lineage of sumo, I think most people think of the legendary figures from the Edo era, like Tanikaze and Raiden.”
It’s a sport steeped in culture and tradition.
"There's tremendous ritual involved, reminiscent of Shinto rituals. Additionally, these were men back in the 1600s where society was still very much a feudal and warrior society. People would carry swords regularly. So a lot of the rituals that we see in the dohyō, which is the ring, are abstractions of basically showing the opponent that you are unarmed," Yaegashi explained. "Which is why they only have basically a mawashi, which is a glorified loincloth. They're naked otherwise, and they spread their arms to show that they've got nothing. And it's just a sheer competition of strength and technique and will."
Japanese American playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring was "entranced by the idea of a sport being so powerful and so ferocious and so wild and then also so restrained and so filled with ceremony and honor," she said. "Like the amount of tradition that is present in there and the amount of ritual that takes place is so different, than any sport I know in America."
Creating a play
Sanaye Dring had grown up with sumo wrestling on TV but when she traveled to Japan and saw a sumo tournament in person, she became obsessed. Then she decided to write a play about it.
"I think people were like, 'what are you up to?'" Sanaye Dring explained. "But then they saw what I was doing, and encountering something with humility and curiosity and respect, and asking a lot of questions is useful."
She also did a lot of research and brought on people like Yaegashi who serves as the play’s fight choreographer as well as cultural and martial arts advisor.
"First and foremost, I'm interested in trying to capture sort of iconic images of what we see as sumo," Yaegashi said. "But then, in addition to that, there's sort of the theatrical element, right, of how do we then make these images, these rituals or movements, interesting in a theatrical setting?"
Set in an elite training facility, the play highlights the massive physical strength of the wrestlers.
"Sometimes there is a ton, like a literal ton of power when you do the math on two bodies hitting each other like that," Sanaye Dring stated. "And so that is hopefully what we are portraying to the audience of how strong these men are."
A place of strength
Sanaye Dring wanted to create a space where Asian men could have lead roles and where the topic would not be racism or victimization.
"And so in this play it leads with, 'oh, that's not the conversation here.' We are not having to prove our masculinity, the men on stage and the people on stage are not having to prove their masculinity because it's not challenged, which I feel like is in many conversations in the theater right now. Whiteness is assaulting some parts of Asianness."
But Sanaye Dring wanted to create a new form of questions that didn't include tackling racism head on, or "looking at the worst cultural trauma we've had? What is it to enter in a place of strength?"
The play is about strength, with the sumo ring as an omnipresent reminder of what’s driving the characters.
"I wanted to tell the story of someone who is rising to power inside of a structured hierarchy. Who is also challenging that hierarchy and then, is also so changed by the system which he is in, that he doesn't know who he is at the end of it," Sanaye Dring said of her main character Akio. "So it made me think about what an athlete is, what a devotional practice is, and how you give your whole self to it. What is it to completely revolutionize your mindset from being an entity unto oneself into a part of this machine? And that's also Japanese culture."
Which is why Yaegashi’s input was key. He grew up in Japan but also lives in the U.S., and he knows the traditions of sumo. His fight choreography involved intense physical training for the actors before they could begin to develop fighting styles that could reflect their characters. At the same time this had to reflect the rules and rituals of sumo.
"It's not a bar fight. A sumo wrestling match is not that. And so I think in any sport there looks like a dance involved, even if it's a dance of besting one another.
Audiences do not need to know anything about sumo before coming to the play but they might leave with a greater appreciation of an ancient Japanese sport.
"The primary intention is not to teach people about the sport," Sanaye Dring said. "It is to illuminate humanity inside of this sport."
"SUMO" does that in a bold new way and with a sense of physical power that Asian men do not often have on the American stage.
JADE HINDMON Welcome back to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade. Hindmon. Next week, La Jolla Playhouse hosts the world premiere of Sumo, a play that looks into an elite sumo training facility in Tokyo. Six men practice, live together and ultimately fight each other there. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring about out the beauty, power, and rich tradition of Japanese sumo wrestling.
BETH ACCOMANDOLisa, you have a play called Sumo. How did you decide that you wanted to write something about sumo wrestling?
LISA SANAYE DRINGWell, sumo is amazing. It was around. I'm Japanese American. Hafu. And so I had grown up and it was just sort of something that was on sometimes, and I sort of followed it, and I was like, this is amazing, when I watched it and then forgot about it when I didn't watch it. And then I went to Japan and I saw honbasho, I saw a tournament live. And I was so entranced by the idea or the feeling of a sport being so powerful and so ferocious and so wild and then also so restrained and so filled with ceremony and honor. Like, the amount of tradition that is present in there and the amount of ritual that takes place is so different than any sport I know in America that it really messed with my paradigms. And so then I was like, wow, that's incredible. And I just thought about it for a really long time. And then I pitched it to McDowell as a residency idea, and they picked it up and I was like, well, I guess I'm writing this play now. And I spent a winter really thinking about it and developing it in East West players, writers, group. So at the core of it, too, I felt, looking back, I think I was trying to understand men and learn how to love men and be with these people, men specifically, that I feel like I didn't understand. And now we're here.
BETH ACCOMANDOAnd what kind of story did you want to tell using sumo as kind of the backdrop?
LISA SANAYE DRINGI wanted to tell the story of someone who is rising to power inside of a structured hierarchy, who is also challenging that hierarchy and then is also so changed by the system which he is in that he doesn't know who he is at the end of it.
BETH ACCOMANDONow, at the rehearsal, there was a lot of focus on the choreography that's going on and about the movement, just movement without language. So talk about the part that that plays in communicating a lot of what's going on. I mean, how are you kind of writing these fights or the sumo, just the physicality of it into your play?
LISA SANAYE DRINGI mean, it's one of the cores of the play. So sometimes there's a ton, like a literal ton of power when you do the math on two bodies hitting each other like that, that's there. And so that is hopefully what we are portraying to the audience of how strong these men are. And I'm trying to let that be a language of the peace. And I can get really interested in heightened language and what verbal language can do. And I'm hoping that letting the body speak and tell the story is also speaking to what silence and corporeal forms can do. So the answer is, I'm not quite sure yet because we haven't done it yet. And also, I think we're all mindful of the beauty of the form and that being one of the core tenets of the piece. I also think it's really beautiful because we're doing it really safely. Like, we have Chelsea Pace and James Yay Geshi working on the fights together. And so having that journey of building that physicality of La Jolla Playhouse says that they are a safe place to make unsafe work. And so how do we do something that is categorically dangerous? Like, they do it safely in the sport, but it is a lot of power. How do we create that story while also being respectful of the bodies on stage who are doing it? And so in building this, how do we tell this audience this story? And then how do we create a safe space for us to do this? I'm really moved.
BETH ACCOMANDOAnd what kind of research did you do into sumo wrestling? I mean, watching it is one thing, but kind of creating a play where that is such a big part of it.
LISA SANAYE DRINGSo with research, I read a lot and I watched a lot of documentaries, and then I just started emailing people and being like, hey, I see you're a sumo wrestler. Do you want to talk to me? And I've gone to a bunch of tournaments in America and then I've gone to some practice here in the States. And actually, I know someone who's into theater and sumo, so that was like an in for me. So I was like, tell me about what got you involved. And now we have James, who's from Japan and he's working on the show, who really is embedded in the culture and has people who are in that world. So I'm trying to get more and more invested. But it's interesting, as I do the play, I start talking to more people, like someone who is a referee for that reached out to me and was like, oh, hey, I hear you're doing this. Someone who wrote a book about it sent that book to me. So it's emerging like I'm getting more immersed in the world and learning about the world of the play as I am making it.
BETH ACCOMANDOAnd while you were doing this research, was there anything that kind of surprised you or that you were really fascinated by?
LISA SANAYE DRINGI think that the rules around the way people live who want to be these fighters is profoundly the rules are well formed and some might say rigid. And so it made me think about what an athlete is what a devotional practice is and how you give your whole self to it. Ahaya, is where these men live and train, especially before they're professional wrestlers. They have to live together, and they eat all their meals together, and the translation is stable. So it's like, what is it to completely revolutionize your mindset from being an entity unto oneself into a part of this machine? And that's also Japanese culture as well. Like, being Japanese American, there's that feeling, that unified consciousness of, like, you are the people around you that I feel and that I also don't feel at all being American. And so know, in America, to fight to be a champion is to rise above everyone else. And I think that friction, that juxtaposition of what it is like to live in a unified mindset and then also rise above is really interesting to me.
BETH ACCOMANDOHow did it feel being an outsider from this world and trying to get into it? Did you get any pushback from kind of the people who were part of this sumo world or did they appreciate kind of outside eyes looking in and maybe seeing something different?
LISA SANAYE DRINGI think people were like, what are you up to? And then everyone I know who's read the text is like, okay, I see what you're doing. And I think encountering something with humility and curiosity and respect and asking a lot of questions is useful, and so I'm trying to do the best we can and keep checking in with the communities involved. I mean, sumo is amazing, and it's getting a resurgence or a surgeonce here in America. Like, people are interested in it, and so I think people are excited that its beauty and its intensity and its magnitude is reaching us. Itch Knee Sun she go.
BETH ACCOMANDOAnd I got to go to one of the rehearsals and see some of the practice that was going on. And you had a drummer to kind of set the tone, and there was a lot of ritual just to the rehearsal process. So what has that been like, actually going through that rehearsal and getting all these actors kind of acclimated to the sumo world?
LISA SANAYE DRINGYeah, I mean, in any rehearsal room, you enter a new universe. So this is a universe where we bow before we go into the rehearsal room, everybody, and we take our shoes off for there's a part of the stage we can't wear shoes in because it's where they fight, but also it's very Japanese to take your shoes off when you enter a space. We're a mixed cultural room, and there's a lot of Asian men in the room. And I think that this plays about creating a brotherhood of sorts. So seeing how everybody stretches together in the morning, sometimes I join, but usually they just do it. And seeing what engaging with those rituals and moving one's body in sequence and learning the rules of this. Even the language training of how we pronounce a thing. Undergoing that is just part of the way that families are formed, the way we form a culture with one language. And I see it in every play, but every play does it very differently. And so it's been really beautiful to see the way we've entered it in this space, how we're forming a family. I mean, this isn't sumo related, but, like, our snack table is crazy because we're Asian. And so we're like, let's feed each other. So everybody's bringing all kinds of foods, like a lot of which are Japanese treats. But it's just really beautiful to be able to connect, because this is a play in America for Asian people, for many audiences, but also to feel like what it is to not only bring in Japanese culture and sumo. Culture, but also to create a place for Asian men to have lead roles and to be with one another and then know part of the intention of this play was so that we, as Asian Americans, wouldn't have to talk about whiteness and wouldn't have to talk about racism in America, which is something that I think is a really wonderful conversation and is also a place where often we are addressing how we've been victimized. And so in this play, it leads with, oh, that's not the conversation here. We are not having to prove our masculinity, not me, but the men on stage. And the people on stage are not having to prove their masculinity because it's not challenged, which I feel like in many conversations in the theater right now, whiteness is assaulting some parts of Asianness, and it's tricky. I don't know all the answers to this conversation, but I'm hoping that this play creates a new form of questions, which is, like, what is good for our community that isn't face on fighting racism or looking at the worst cultural trauma we've had? What is it to enter in a place of strength and be like, look how beautiful we can be together. That's interesting. No, I think they should just come. We're trying to create an invitation and an open space where there are some things that are explained and some things that aren't, but give people enough information to come along for the ride. The primary intention is not to teach people about the sport. It is to illuminate humanity inside of this sport. And so I hope both are happening. And it would be great if people left here and were like, let's go watch know it's amazing. It's a lot. James is a martial artist who also has a lot of knowledge in Sumo, so he knows what fighting techniques are acceptable and what's also, you know, being raised in Japan, knows about the ritual involved and what things mean. So things you see, like when a Sumo wrestler wins, they do this chopping motion, which means heart. They're spelling out the kanji for heart. And James understands the substrate of that and why that is happening. And so in any theater process, you are essentializing in some ways, so you're finding out, what can we do in this form? And so we are figuring out all the things that are involved with this and then figuring out what is the core that we need to say. And it's wonderful to work with him because he lives in America, he's very much an American, and so thinks about what that translation is. He describes himself as fully Japanese and fully American. His family lives in both places. And so being able to speak that language really beautifully illuminates a lot and has changed the text just from working it out with people. Yeah, I think so. A lot of this has to do with the director, Ralph Pena's work. I'm hugely fond. I mean, and he's been with this piece for two years now, and the way he leads Space is really beautiful. I think that this play I mean, something I hope and I think is happening with this play is that this play creates fraternity and connection amongst the people in it. And Ralph is a wonderful leader in the Asian American theater field who has engendered that for decades in our cultures.
BETH ACCOMANDOThanks for talking with me about Sumo.
LISA SANAYE DRINGThanks for having me.
"SUMO" runs through Oct. 22 at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Forum. "SUMO" was part of the La Jolla Playhouse's DNA New Work Series in 2021. The production is directed by Ralph B. Peña, artistic director of Ma-Yi Theatre (which is co-producing with the Playhouse), and features live taiko drumming.