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A tale of forbidden love lives on

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Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu bring their family story, “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend,” to the San Francisco International Arts Festival. (Courtesy First Voice)

Among the more than 100 offerings from 13 countries in the 2016 San Francisco International Arts Festival is the home-grown piece “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend” by Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu, a veteran performance art duo based in The City.

Aoki is thankful to festival organizer Andrew Wood not only for supporting international work, and people’s fascination with what is “other,” but also for giving the programming a strong local presence.

“You need to talk about the bridge,” says Aoki. “It shows the reality of the world. America gets so skewed, and boundaries are so permeable now.”

“Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend,” onstage at Thursday’s festival opening at Fort Mason, is a boundary-breaking duet for storyteller and contra bass that the husband-and-wife team (who have been performing together for 40 years) created in 1998 and revised in 2007.

It’s a story of interracial — and forbidden — romance, based on the life of Aoki’s grand uncle Gunjiro Aoki, son of a legendary samurai, who in the early 1900s, fell in love with Helen Emery, the daughter of the archdeacon of Grace Cathedral.

The couple became the subject of public outrage. Newspaper headlines decried the union, her great uncle lost his position as head of a Japanese mission, his wife lost her U.S. citizenship, and they were forced to flee the area.

As a youngster, Aoki had no idea she had upper-class Japanese ancestors. She grew up in an atmosphere in which it was “cool to be so ghetto.”

Wanting to break out from being “actively downwardly mobile,” she started to research and “found the secret family shame.”

It came through a 106-year-old relative who was introduced to her as a cousin, whom Aoki thinks might be Uncle Gunjiro’s little sister; other relatives told Aoki the woman “wasn’t going to die” until the story of how the family lost face was told.

“It was my job to tell this story,” says Aoki, who was fascinated to find out that her family founded one of the first Japanese settlements in America.

“I’m a living remnant of the beginning,” she says.

Aoki, who lived with Izu in The City’s primarily black-and-Japanese Fillmore for 35 years, says, with a laugh, that when their young son (now going to Stanford University) got a scholarship to a swanky private school, it “must have been Uncle Gunjiro pulling some strings.”

On the same note, she says, his spirit also may have helped them assume the loan on a building in San Francisco after they were evicted from their Fillmore home in 2008. (It’s on Parsons Street, she says, noting that a socialist bishop named Parsons was among the few who helped Helen after Gunjiro died.)

Being performance artists hasn’t made Izu and Aoki rich, and the couple says the arts climate has changed throughout their decades creating one-of-a kind works that meld music, spoken word and history.

“Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend,” too, has varied through the years, as family members and others who see it (and know the story) offer Aoki and Izu additional details. “Every time we do the piece, it changes dramatically, and I have to keep writing new music for it,” says Izu, an Emmy-winning composer also appearing in a June 5 SFIAF event with Anthony Brown’s Asian America Orchestra based on the seminal 1960 jazz and poetry album “We Insist! Freedom NowSuite.”

Aoki calls “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend,” a physical work in which she plays 25 characters, “living history,” with a perspective that particularly affects children. “It teaches you that what one person does matters. It ends up impacting people exponentially,” she says.

Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend
Presented by S.F. International Arts Festival
Where: Southside Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason
When: 8:30 p.m. May 19, 9 p.m. May 21, 3:30 p.m. May 22
Tickets: $20 to $25
Contact: www.sfiaf.org

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