Words by Diep Tran
When Aya Ogawa was 33, their father died. The family decided to cremate him. On his urn, it read simply: Akira Ogawa, Born August 15, 1930, Died January 17, 2006. “Wait,” Ogawa recalls upon seeing the plain metal box that held their father’s remains. “2007!” The death year was inscribed wrong. “Oh no!” they remember their mother moaning. “It was January and I wasn’t used to writing the new year yet…” They never got a new one made, and they never held a funeral.
That moment, tragic and darkly comedic, is met with groans and laughter every night at The Nosebleed, a play that Ogawa wrote (and is starring in) to process their complicated relationship with their father. The Nosebleed runs through Aug. 28 at Lincoln Center Theater, in New York’s uber-wealthy Upper West Side. And then after, Ogawa will perform the show in Washington, D.C. at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in April 2023.
“It's very vulnerable to expose my life in this way, and it was not something that I intended to write,” Ogawa explains from their home in Brooklyn, where they live with their husband and two sons. Looking at Ogawa, it doesn’t seem anything would phase them. After all, they’re a parent, an artist, and their hair is currently cut in a mohawk, giving them an appearance that can only be described as badass. But Ogawa is also tender and honest, admitting that The Nosebleed gives them anxiety: “This is my life. It's full of chaos and it's cuckoo bananas and there's, like, blood and vomit everywhere.” It may be “cuckoo” but it’s also the stuff of great drama.
The Nosebleed had humble beginnings. Ogawa first performed it for four shows in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. Then last fall, they performed it again for two weeks. The buzz around the show has been growing since—The New York Times called it “conversational, unflinching and delicately layered, Ogawa’s memoir-like excavation tests the boundaries of love and family obligation through intimate confession.”
The production’s all-Asian design team is a rarity for the theater industry; the cast for The Nosebleed are mostly Asian as well. And contrary to what you may assume, Ogawa is not playing themself. Instead, for eight shows a week, Ogawa is playing their father, in a tribute to him and an attempt to make up for what they consider the biggest failure of their life.
As they say in the play: “I didn’t have a funeral or memorial service for my father. And in the end, we didn’t publish an obituary for him in the Monterey Herald or do anything to honor his life.” And in another twist, four actors (some Asian, some not) are playing Ogawa.
Ogawa’s parents are both from Japan. Ogawa was born in Tokyo and the family traveled back and forth frequently between Japan and the U.S. In The Nosebleed, Ogawa is honest about their relationship with their father: they barely had one. Akira traveled constantly for work (he worked for the Bank of Tokyo). Though Akira approved of his daughter getting a college degree in theater (and even suggested they get a PhD), he was a cold man, who never showed his two kids any physical affection and never tried to emotionally connect with them. “I hated my father. I barely had a relationship with him. He thought that being a father meant paying for all of my expenses until I graduated from college,” Ogawa says in The Nosebleed.
But Akira isn’t just portrayed as a strict, stoic Asian father (a stereotype that carries its own baggage). The Nosebleed also shows his quirks.
But Akira isn’t just portrayed as a strict, stoic Asian father (a stereotype that carries its own baggage). The Nosebleed also shows his quirks. For instance, later in his life, when he was retired, the elder Ogawa took an art class at his community college. One of the things he drew was a portrait of Princess Diana, which he then hung in a frame in his home office. When asked why, Akira responds: “She meant something to a lot of people.” It’s a touching detail that’s also devastating in its irony.
After their father’s death, Ogawa admitted they didn’t think about him for over a decade. They got married and had two sons. But Ogawa can pinpoint two events that led to their finally processing their father’s death, and which led to The Nosebleed.
One was the literal nosebleed: In 2017, Ogawa had taken their sons to Japan for the summer and enrolled the boys in a Japanese language school. The first night in Japan, while they were sleeping, their older son Kai accidentally punched his younger brother Kenya in the nose. There was blood everywhere, all over their pajamas and all over the sheets.
This random freak event led to something of an identity crisis for Ogawa. “I don't know what I'm doing,” Ogawa recalls feeling. They admit that after their family moved to the U.S., they didn’t speak Japanese much in public for the next 20 years. For a long time, they had buried that part of their identity (an unexpected revelation since they are now the preeminent translator for Japanese playwrights looking to make their American debut). So even though by 2017, Ogawa had reestablished a connection with their Japanese heritage, they still felt like “a total imposter. I feel like I'm neither American nor Japanese.”
Their son’s nosebleed caused them to spiral further, realizing that because they never had a close relationship with their father, that could affect their ability to be a good parent: “What the hell am I doing!? What can I possibly give to my kids?” It was a lot for their first night in Japan.
Then, after coming back from Japan, Ogawa was talking to an artist friend of theirs, a choreographer named Catherine Galasso. They were discussing their current artistic projects and Galasso told Ogawa she was choreographing some pieces set to her father’s music; Galasso’s father was a composer.
“That's such a beautiful way to honor him and his life and his work,” Ogawa recalls saying. “And actually, that conversation made me think about my father for the first time in 10 years. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what do I have to say to him? What kind of conversation could I have with him?’” And it made Ogawa come face to face with their own regrets about their father for the first time: about never getting to truly know him and about never honoring his life.
“Oh, my God, we're just all doomed to become our parents.”
Those feelings are especially pronounced these days, because when Ogawa looks in the mirror, all they see are their parents (who are both deceased): “I'm almost 50, you know, and every time I look in the mirror, I have stopped seeing myself, and I just see my fucking parents. And I hate it!” they exclaim with a smidge of horror. “Oh, my God, we're just all doomed to become our parents.”
That also means that when they play Akira onstage in The Nosebleed, people who knew the late Akira have remarked that they can see him, and that Ogawa looks just like him. In The Nosebleed, Ogawa plays Akira from when he’s middle aged to his death from a lung infection following a stroke. In The Nosebleed, when Ogawa plays Akira at the end of his life, it’s a bracing performance. He walks stooped over and slow. He doesn’t speak in complete sentences, he merely groans. And he looks confused and afraid, like he doesn’t understand how he got here.
For Ogawa, it was surprisingly easy to step into their father’s shoes. And in fact, the experience is spiritual, because for a moment, it feels like their father is alive again. “I drop in my body. And it's right there: His face is my face. His body is my body,” they explain. “It's one of those kind of almost shamanistic or, I don't know, I'm lending my body to his spirit.”
Meanwhile, having four different actors playing them is a nod to the different aspects of Ogawa’s personality. For instance, one actor, Saori Tsukada, grew up in Japan and speaks with a slight Japanese accent—she represents the “more Japanese” part of Ogawa. While another actor, Drae Campbell, who is transmasculine and a lesbian, represents Ogawa’s “queerness.” It was a way to externalize the fact that being Asian American isn’t just about being one thing. “What does it mean to kind of explode an Asian American identity in those ways?” posits Ogawa. “That part I feel really good about and am very proud of.”
In The Nosebleed, the audience is asked to perform in a ritual. It’s a Buddhist ceremony, to give Akira Ogawa a belated funeral. And as in any ritual, there is usually an offering—everyone has to contribute something. So because The Nosebleed is a theater experience with a live audience, everyone watching is invited to contribute questions they always wanted to ask their fathers but never could. Those questions are written onto half sheets of paper, which are then collected by the show’s actors and used in the show (which we won’t spoil for you here).
Ogawa also asks their own questions of the audience: Who here hates their father? Who here has a father who has died? The night I went, almost half the audience raised their hands in response. These moments of audience participation isn’t just a gimmick. It’s a way to remind the audience, especially the Asian American ones, of an unfortunate fact of existence: Your parents will not be around forever, so try to get to know them as human beings, and not as the villains in your head.
“To build a relationship with your parents as an adult—I never did that with my own father,” admits Ogawa. “If he were alive, would I be able to do that? I don't know. But I wish that I could. And maybe this play can offer an opening for people whose parents are alive, to open that door for them.”
As for Ogawa, doing The Nosebleed and owning up to their failure has helped quiet their own fears about parenthood. Their oldest son, Kai, is 13 and his Japanese is better than theirs. And they hope he will consider his own cultural identity as a source of comfort and something he can access whenever he’s ready—and that he won’t have the same kind of existential angst as Ogawa did. And the play has also helped Ogawa forgive their father and themselves.
“I have a lot of unanswered questions for him, and they will never be answered,” they admit pensively, staring out the window. “But what I can do is to grant myself forgiveness for all sorts of things. I think for a lot of people, maybe a lot of women, it's easy to find empathy for other people and other people's stories. And it's harder to apply that forgiveness on yourself.”
Published on August 17, 2022
Words by Diep Tran
Diep Tran is a culture critic/reporter/editor based in New York City. Her loves include musical theater and period dramas. She interviewed Keanu Reeves once and got him to admit he was Asian. Twitter: @DiepThought