Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Manga Opera Begins Run at La Mama

The world, according to Fred Ho, is Afro-Asian.

“Think about it,” says Ho, a composer, musician, writer, radical activist, and intellectual. “Africa and Asia are the world’s two largest continents, have the world’s largest populations, and make up the world’s largest diasporas. So the world is Afro-Asian.”

Ho brings elements of this Afro-Asian world together in Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!, which opens May 16 and runs through June 2 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.

Fred Ho, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!, La Mama, Ellen Stewart Theatre, NYC, Afro-Asian manga opera, Afro-Asian, opera, Sonoko Kawahara, Crossing Jamaica Avenue

Fred Ho. Photo ©Adam Mayer.

Influenced by chambara (samurai sword-fighting cinema), Lady Snowblood (a Kazuo Koike manga about a female assassin seeking revenge against the men who raped her mother and murdered her father), and the films of Akira Kurosawa, Ho based the concept of Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! on Koike’s manga Lone Wolf and Cub, a tale about a father-and-son assassins-for-hire team. Ho re-imagines one of the Lone Wolf characters as a female assassin (played by Ai Ikeda), who is on her way to a showdown with the forces of evil.

Surrounding the core story are martial arts moves choreographed by Emmanuel Brown of Broadway’s Spider-Man, sword fighting choreographed by Samurai Sword Soul co-founder Yoshi Amao, and acrobatics that combine for a production that Ho promises will be “as spectacular as Cirque du Soleil and as dramatic as Edward Albee or David Mamet.” Ho’s reason? “The music, the music, the music,” he says.

Working with his long-time collaborator Ruth Margraff, Ho gives the comic book treatment to a biblical Shakespearean epic that combines Noh, Kabuki, and Kung-fu theater with chambara and the black and yellow exploitation movies of the 1970s. Ho and Margraff created what Ho describes as an Afro-Asian manga opera. But in this opera, you won’t hear any fat ladies singing. Instead, you’ll hear sophisticated jazz music from a live band with instruments that include the ancient Japanese bass koto, shakuhachi, and fue.

“Sometimes pop culture needs a kick in the ass from the avant-garde,” says Ho.

Deadly She-Wolf had its world premiere in 2006 in Philadelphia, where it received positive reviews. Ho was poised to bring the show to New York shortly thereafter, but he was dealt a major setback: A diagnosis of Stage 3B colorectal cancer. Surgeries, hospital stays, and treatments sapped Ho of his energy, so he decided to put the New York premiere on hold until his health improved. The problem is, it hasn’t. Almost seven years later, the cancer has spread, and he has an estimated six to 18 months to live.

Making peace with his mortality, Ho decided ten months ago that the time for Deadly She-Wolf in New York is now – because he has so little of it left.

“I asked myself, ‘What do I have to complete before I’m gone?’ Deadly She-Wolf was ready to go, a completed work. I got my team together and I told them that I have the money to make it happen, but I don’t have the strength or stamina. Can you guys carry the ball?” says Ho.

Fred Ho, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!, La Mama, Ellen Stewart Theatre, NYC, Afro-Asian manga opera, Afro-Asian, opera, Sonoko Kawahara, Crossing Jamaica Avenue

Sonoko Kawahara. Photo ©Kumiko Hart.

Part of his team is director Sonoko Kawahara, who has been on board with the project since 2005, when Ho received a commission from Japan Society to create a workshop. While Ho was in the hospital, Kawahara would visit him and massage his feet. “That’s when I knew she was going to give her all to this work and to me,” says Ho.

“I owe him more massages,” says Kawahara, who relishes the creative challenges that Ho presents with Deadly She-Wolf.

As a native Japanese theater director in New York, Kawahara is often expected to direct strictly Japanese plays or do something with an East-Meets-West flair. She has no desire to do East Meets West in a superficial way. While Deadly She-Wolf is based on a Japanese manga, contains Japanese traditional and contemporary elements, and has several Japanese actors and musicians, Kawahara finds the production unique.

“Fred was inspired by a Japanese story, but this piece isn’t intentionally East Meets West,” says Kawahara. “Those elements live together, just like we all live together in New York. We’re all part of an international exchange.

“It’s definitely physically entertaining,” Kawahara says, “and it’s very interesting because the most special thing about this piece starts with music.”

Music is the force behind all of Ho’s projects. He writes the music first to drive the plot and the characters while allowing the text and action to fall into place around it. There is a set score for Deadly She-Wolf, but with a live band, there will be a high degree of improvisation.

“Fred calls it an opera, and now I understand,” says Kawahara. “He wrote the music score for the emotion, images, and how the story flows. I think about how I should direct in 3D space and how opera directors direct opera.”

After presenting the first act at Japan Society and premiering in Philadelphia, Kawahara felt such a connection to the production that she and her company, Crossing Jamaica Avenue, pitched the project to La Mama and Ellen Stewart Theatre, which Ho says is “the perfect space for my kind of work.”

And this work, Ho says, is “a far superior show” than the world premiere. “There is a better budget, better costume design, better scenics, and the choreography is off the hook,” he says.

Leading up to the New York premiere, Kawahara, the actors, and the rest of the team have tried not to let Ho’s battle with cancer be a dark cloud hanging over the production.

“Everyone who works with Fred sometimes forgets he’s sick,” says Kawahara. “His attitude toward life affects our awareness of living, our sense of life. I’m so impressed with his attitude and respect everything he does that it gives me strength as a human being.”

For Kawahara, her focus has been on bringing the best possible show to a New York audience. “I’ve never worked on a piece like this,” she says. “I believe the audience hasn’t seen anything like this.”

If you’re wondering what a martial-arts-samurai-sword-fighting-music-theater-Afro-Asian-manga-opera-fantasy-action-adventure-blockbuster is, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! is your ticket to a genre-defying tale and entry into Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian world.

Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! begins Thursday, May 16 and runs through Sunday, June 2. To purchase tickets, please visit La Mama’s website.