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If entering a bookstore relaxes your body and spirit like it does mine, you’ll feel right at home walking into Tiny Dynamite’s intimate staging of Julia Izumi’s Meet Murasaki Shikibu Followed by Book Signing, and Other Things. Sara Outing’s set dresses the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake with stacks of books in its cozy corners, igniting the desire to start browsing when I entered the space. Tiny Dynamite also creates a warm and welcoming theater experience by feeding its audience members with a slice of pizza and a beverage of their choice on the way in, so the books completed my comfort cocoon.
But of course, we’re not here to dive into a book, but to take an anachronistic, theatrical journey together to meet the play’s legendary literary hero, 11th-century Japanese author Murasaki Shikibu, whose The Tale of Genji may be the world’s oldest surviving novel.
Murasaki and the Manager
We begin by meeting the Book Store Manager (the powerful, dynamic Lexi Thammavong). Book Store Manager greets us with a heated mix of hospitality, excitement, social anxiety, and stage fright. In her first self-defeating move, she forgets to bring the donation bucket for book-signing attendees to help her struggling store.
No fear! Soon Murasaki herself appears from the great beyond, igniting the stage. I admit, I had to look up The Tale of Genji before coming to the play—I had heard of it, but have never read it. It was not on the syllabus of any of my college literature classes (even International Women Writers, which introduced me to so many great authors that I hadn’t previously heard of). Izumi knows this will be the case for many audience members, and cleverly makes sure to call us on it.
Her imagining of Murasaki (played by the riveting Kimie Muroya) brings us right into a thousand-year-old literary story. This Murasaki shows up in a black silk kimono top, red pants, and modern sunglasses on her head (costumes by Asaki Kuruma), and takes charge of the stage, flashing a fan that says iconic. We meet a historic writer who seems to be from the world of TikTok and influencers; she is here to perform, perform, perform, despite the befuddled Book Store Manager’s desperate attempts to direct her into a literary conversation: her writing life, the creation of the novel form itself, her inspiration and motivation.
Meeting your heroes can be dangerous, and Book Store Manager discovers this hard truth in front of us all. Murasaki turns the tables, taking on the persona of interviewer and grilling Book Store Manager about her own surprising life. No one has ever been interested in the Manager’s story, and she’s both shaken and relieved to tell it.
About midway through the play, the playwright cleverly engages the audience through a participatory Q&A, and this is when the author’s vapid persona finally starts to break down. Without giving a pivotal plot point away, I’ll share that it’s the introduction of the Japanese language itself that triggers the character’s powerful transformation. We finally get to learn about her personal experience with the melancholy and suffering that surge through her writing, her confusion in becoming a widow, and what it was like to live in a Japan that did not record women’s names.
Murasaki and the Manager develop a deep and beautiful trust that enables this cathartic transformation. Murasaki shares her doubts and struggles about her artistic agency and the legacy of her work. “The power of one good book can change the world,” Book Store Manager pleads, but Murasaki is not sure.
I wish that the playwright had trusted the power of the character’s reveal more, and shortened the schtick that comes before. I understand the purpose of the pretense, but maybe because we’re surrounded by so much egotistical noise in our culture, I would not have minded less of it.
An important meta moment
The final quarter of the play becomes beautifully energized with a third character, simply called A Person (the graceful, enthralling Makoto Hirano). The stylized choreography of that closing section brings the love and loss discussed between the characters through the play to life in a thrilling, physical way.
The play ends with one more major transformation: that of Book Store Manager, who becomes an author herself, telling the story of Murasaki onstage. This is a meta moment about the power of telling stories and who gets to tell them. I found myself yearning for the character to recognize that even before becoming an author herself, she played a vital role in the world of books simply by trying to sustain her humble store. That, too, is a more-than-worthy role.
What, When, Where
Meet Murasaki Shikibu Followed by Book Signing, and Other Things. By Julia Izumi, directed by Cat Ramirez. Through June 18, 2023, at Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, 302 S Hicks St, Philadelphia. (215) 399-0088 or tinydynamite.org.
The Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms. Please contact the Tiny Dynamite box office or email [email protected] to book wheelchair-accessible seating.
Masks are required in the theater, except when audience members are eating. The theater has an improved HVAC system for air circulation.
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