America’s ultimate act of warfare--the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 45 years ago--sets the stage for Dan Seymour’s “A-Bomb Beauties,” making its premiere this weekend at the Burbage Theatre.
“Beauties” is based on the true story of the Hiroshima Maidens, 25 Japanese women, disfigured by the bomb, who were brought to America in 1955 by a group of philanthropists to undergo reconstructive surgery.
“What struck me about the story was its incredible irony,” said Seymour, the New York playwright who’s in town for the opening. “Doing something like that--it’s really a good and a bad thing. Yes, the girls were definitely helped in terms of getting the use of the hands and arms back. But it was also a way of surface-erasing the effects of the bomb, making it all better. They brought 25 ‘maidens’ here and made their faces pretty. I’m not criticizing the doctors. After the fact, what can you do?”
What angers him isn’t only the Band-Aid approach to such monumental physical and psychic pain but that it tends to obscure the true devastation of nuclear war.
“Right after the bomb, a commission had gone in and conducted a scientific study,” he said dryly. “In no way did they try to fix any of the damage. . . . I’ve tried to steer away from questioning whether or not we should’ve dropped the bomb. To me, that’s a moot point. What’s important is what happened after the bomb was dropped. Look at us now. Nuclear proliferation is on top of us. We don’t look back at the people of Hiroshima, the horror of that day.”
In real life, then-Saturday Review Editor Norman Cousins was among those leading the effort to bring the women here. Seymour, however, has fictionalized his nine characters. Philanthropist Elliott Ryder is a composite of all the Americans who were involved; the Asian chaperones are represented by Father Tanaka, a Japanese-Catholic priest. “They’re the two leading characters,” said the writer, 33. “The focus of the play is the conflict between the American and the Japanese.”
And the traditionally obedient “maidens” take a back seat to that power play.
“The women are still victims, and these two men are the ones who make all the decisions for them,” Seymour said. “I didn’t write archetypes, but essentially, it’s how victims of any war are ruled. The women have no control. It’s also a question of looking at the big picture--Japanese and American relations--but not the small picture: ‘What’s good for these women?’ I think that typifies what America has done since, this big benevolent despot that makes assumptions for other people, who’s always better than everybody else.”
The playwright knows that attitude isn’t going to win him any popularity contests.
“It upsets some people because I’m not writing about America as a hero,” he said with a shrug. “I get comments from a lot of people my parents’ age, and some of them still have an abiding hatred of the Japanese. They come up to me after readings and say, ‘What about Pearl Harbor?’ Well, what about Pearl Harbor? It was a military installation. Hiroshima: They killed 100,000. Come on! To me, there’s no comparison. Still, I am pleased when people come out of the theater upset. At least they’re talking about it; they’re not complacent.”
Shigeko Sasamori is still talking about it too. One of the famous maidens, Sasamori has spent much of the past 35 years being interviewed about her experiences; last May, she returned to Japan to supervise a television docudrama on her life.
“The actress who was doing my part said, ‘You must be very strong.’ I told her, ‘I don’t think I’m strong or weak. I just lived my life.’ ” When she came here at age 20, Sasamori had already undergone several plastic surgeries in Japan; she cannot now recall her feelings about being selected: “I know I wasn’t jumping for joy.” As for her feelings about this play, “It’s not my story,” the Los Angeles resident said firmly. “I don’t know what they have written.”
Seymour quickly agrees that his vantage point has not been that of an insider.
“I would never begin to talk for these women,” said the writer, who has dramatized the women’s facial scars by costuming them in veils. “What I’m trying to capture is what America was like in 1955, how we looked at the world around us, how we looked at Japan. We took these 25 girls; we were very patronizing, very superior. . . . And yet the characters all believe in what they’re doing. They’re making mistakes, but they’re trying to be good men.”
Offstage, the writer knows a thing or two about philanthropy. Growing up on the move (the son of an oft-transferred employee at Ralston-Purina), he went to New York to be an actor. “I didn’t handle the acting business well,” Seymour said lightly. “But now I have a real job.” As director of the Mental Illness Foundation, “We raise money for schizophrenia research, community housing, halfway houses for the homeless. I ask people for money, then give it away. I like that part.”
Burbage Theater, 2330 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 478-0898.
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 16.
Price: $15, $12 for students and seniors.