Arts & Theater

One girl inspires another in this musical prayer for peace

"Peace on Your Wings," a new musical making its Sacramento premiere, tells the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young Hiroshima girl sickened by radiation from the atomic bomb.
"Peace on Your Wings," a new musical making its Sacramento premiere, tells the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young Hiroshima girl sickened by radiation from the atomic bomb. Ohana Arts

A new musical based on the life of one brave Japanese girl inspired a Sacramento teen to bring home its universal theme of peace and share it with her community.

Grace Matayoshi, 17, embraced the meaning behind “Peace on Your Wings,” which will make its Sacramento debut March 29-31 at the Benvenuto Performing Arts Center. Matayoshi will be among the 21 young performers in the cast.

“This musical holds many messages, especially the hope for peace throughout the world,” Matayoshi explained. “There’s a Japanese proverb, ‘Ichigo ichie’; ‘One time, one meeting.’ It means you should live in the moment because no two moments are the same. Treasure all your memories with your family because you don’t know when you won’t be able to see a loved one again. It’s the main message behind ‘Peace on Your Wings.’ "

Matayoshi is not only a performer, but an extraordinary fundraiser.

With the help of her Buddhist Church of Sacramento, she launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $32,000 in less than a month, enough to bring “Peace on Your Wings” to Sacramento for four performances.

“(This play) coming to Sacramento had a lot to do with Grace,” said Jenny Taira, who wrote the play’s music and co-wrote its book. “She’s a real go-getter and so professional. She really rallied her community.”

Taira and Laurie Rubin originally created “Peace on Your Wings” in 2014 for Ohana Arts, their nonprofit performing arts program in Hawaii. After performances throughout Hawaii, it traveled to New York, Los Angeles and San Jose. A 2020 national tour is in the works.

The musical is based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki, made internationally famous in Eleanor Coerr’s children’s book, “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.”

“I read that book,” said Matayoshi, who is home-schooled. “When I heard about the musical, I really wanted to be part of it.”

Matayoshi auditioned by video to be in the Bay Area production of the musical last fall. She got the part as Sadako’s best friend, Kiyo.

“Sadako Sasaki was a real-life 12-year-old girl who was diagnosed with leukemia caused by radiation from the Hiroshima bombing,” she explained. “Just returning from a Japanese cultural exchange over the summer and getting to experience the Hiroshima Memorial, I was so excited to join the Bay Area cast of ‘Peace on Your Wings.’ ”

While in the hospital, Sadako folded origami paper cranes by the hundreds. According to Japanese legend, fold a thousand cranes, your wish will come true. Her initial wish – to get well – became a wish for world peace.

“Peace on Your Wings” goes far beyond paper cranes and atomic bombs.

“The beautiful music and energetic choreography portray the strength, love and hope that children have as they face bullying, self-identity issues and loss – problems many modern-day teens and tweens still face,” Matayoshi said.

Set in the 1950s, the musical mixes Broadway-style production numbers with boogie-woogie, modern Japanese pop and traditional Taiko drumming.

Many children today are not familiar with Hiroshima, noted Cari Taira, Jenny’s sister and the musical’s director. “(The cast) is definitely learning about Hiroshima while learning the play. The first time most of them heard about it was in the play.”

On Aug. 6, 1945, in the final stages of World War II, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on that Japanese city, killing as many as 146,000 people. (A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Japan surrendered Aug. 15.) Many of the civilian casualties died of radiation-related illnesses such as leukemia.

“What we’ve found with our audiences, people don’t realize the impact an atomic bomb can have,” Cari Taira added. “It’s not just the initial (death toll), but the radiation illness and long-term effects. It makes a lot of people sick.”

With current tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, threats of nuclear missiles feel very real again, noted Jenny Taira.

“This story is timely,” she said. “It’s also a story told through the eyes of youth. Our cast is ages 7 to 17 without a single adult on stage.

“This message is so powerful,” Cari Taira said, “especially coming from kids.”

Besides learning their lines and dance steps, the young actors picked up another skill: How to fold paper cranes.

“Whenever we were backstage or during rehearsals, we folded paper cranes,” Matayoshi said. “That part was very fun to do.”

'Peace on Your Wings'

Where: Benvenuti Performing Arts Center, 4600 Blackrock Drive, Sacramento

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 29; 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 30; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 31

Tickets: $15-$35

Details: 916-491-1028, http://peaceonyourwings.com

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