Photo courtesy of Jessica Nakamura directs the first English rendition of the Japanese play “Family Portrait.”

Photo courtesy of
Jessica Nakamura directs the first English rendition of the Japanese play “Family Portrait.”

By Charis Nixon

Falling victim to consumerism, getting trapped in part-time jobs, searching for a purpose — these are some of the struggles that afflict young people today. These are also issues Japanese playwright Shu Matsui addresses in his play, “Family Portrait.” This play has never been performed in English — until now, thanks to UNR’s Jessica Nakamura, Ph.D.

Nakamura, an assistant professor of theater, began translating “Family Portrait” from the original Japanese about a year ago. She is also directing a production of the play at the University of Nevada, Reno; the first English performance.

“It is really a series of vignettes about our contemporary life,” Nakamura said. “Even though it’s called ‘Family Portrait,’ I would say it’s about our lack of connections between each other.”

In “Family Portrait,” characters are given vague titles rather than names, such as ‘Wife,’ ‘Mother,’ ‘Son’ and ‘Part-timer.’ Each vignette explores relationships between these characters. For example, the play features a mother who cannot get her reclusive son to leave the house, and a wife and husband who can no longer stand each other.

Rehearsals are taking place every weeknight and Sunday nights at the Redfield Studio Theatre. In order to enhance the audience’s connection to the characters’ relationships, the UNR production will be performed “in the round.” This means the stage will be surrounded by audience on all four sides, which gives each audience member a unique perspective and engages them more thoroughly with the events taking place onstage.

“I like the idea of the connection the audience is making … how close they are to the actors,” Nakamura said. “The audience doesn’t just watch the actors, but they can also watch other people reacting to what is going [on] onstage, so that becomes part of the performance as well.”

Although the struggles portrayed in the play are just as relevant in modern-day America as they are in Japan, the two languages do not have as much in common. Translating the play presented a unique set of challenges, due to the inherent differences between English and Japanese. According to Nakamura, these languages are practically opposites.

“Japanese is almost the inverse of English,” Nakamura said. “Japanese is a high-context language, and English is a low-context language. So, in Japanese, people will spend a lot of a scene talking about ‘that’ or ‘this,’ but not really referring to what ‘that,’ or ‘this,’ or a person who is not even onstage, is.”

In order to fine-tune the dialogue of the play, Nakamura wrote multiple drafts of her translation. After finishing a mostly literal translation, she enlisted the help of theater students to read the play aloud so she could smooth out any awkwardness in the language. In fact, she is even making changes to the script as it is being rehearsed.

“In this process of staging it, we are discovering moments where we want to clean up the language here and there as well,” Nakamura said. “I’m excited for the production. I think everyone is so talented and all the actors are so intelligent.”

“Family Portrait” plays March 3-4 and 8-11 at 7:30 p.m. and March 5 at 1:30 p.m. in the Redfield Studio Theatre at UNR. Tickets will be on sale at the Lawlor Event Center on campus.