It’s a challenging feat to describe My Name is Sumiko, but creator June Fukumura likes to think of it as a children’s show for adults. If you mixed Japanese owarai, bouffon clowning, feminist rage, pop music and millennial hardship together, then held the result up to a funhouse mirror of Japanese stereotypes, the result would be close. But Sumiko refuses to be categorized or defined—she thrives in conflict and contradictions, the absurd and the unexpected.
The show was created by New(to)Town Collective (June Fukumura, Davey Calderon, and Avyen von Waldenburg) and had it’s premiere at the 2019 Vancouver Fringe Festival. With so many moving components, the play runs the danger of becoming unwieldy, yet all the joy and the anger has honed it to a razor sharp edge. Behind Sumiko’s colourful yukata and exclamations of “Oh my gah,” there lies a scathing take on Japanese exoticism through the Western gaze, existential dread, and the patriarchy. And it’s also hilarious.
Fukumura was initially terrified of her creation. “The character was coming out with this huge flamboyant Japanese accent,” she recalls. “I was shocked at the things I was actually saying through this mask, through this character.”
When Sumiko refused to leave, Fukumura eventually realized just how significant the character’s voice was. “She’s got something to say. She’s got an edge. She’s got an angle. She can say things that I can’t, and it feels really empowering,” explains the performer. All the cultural shame and unease Fukumura felt of her own hyphenated identity as a Japanese-Canadian became Sumiko’s source of power.
My Name is Sumiko is divided into three parts: the first, in which Sumiko learns how to be a palatable Japanese person, the second, where she meets Death, the third, in which she sings karaoke and fights pirates—all in the name of love. Nothing is as it seems in My Name is Sumiko, and part of the show’s brilliance is watching how Fukumura alchemizes sweetness into venom. It’s like a pie to the face, so to speak.
No stranger to improvisation or interactive theatre, Fukumura’s charm and infectious energy reaches to her audience and draws them—sometimes physically—into her world. “In this particular show… there are no lines,” says Fukumura, keeping with the tradition of clowning. “Everyone is in the audience and everyone is on stage.”
Fukumura’s energy is almost superhuman. While some may describe it as pixie-like, that word doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the herculean strength with which her performance hurtles the audience into the darkest part of their psyche, and then with a joke, a laugh, and an “Oh my gah,” deftly pulls them back. My Name is Sumiko is a balancing act, a place where humour and darkness flow seamlessly together to create an experience that is deeply uncomfortable and gut bustingly funny. That’s the genius of Fukumura’s creation: she needed a larger than life character to tell an ordinary story about ordinary people.
My Name is Sumiko is a zany, ridiculous, scathing, and uncontainable gift that you can still catch before VFF’s September 15th end. Let Sumiko guide you through her cat and karaoke filled fantasy, and then marvel at how much clearer the real world appears long after she’s waved goodbye.