Everyone enjoys a good love story told well and on this alone, Waterfall delivers. But beyond its captivating story of forbidden love, Waterfall possesses a socially conscious essence as it moves from Bangkok to Tokyo in the 1930s, exploring issues of culture and identity, race, globalization, immigration and the eternal tug of war between tradition and modernity. These themes not only capture the tensions of the times, but seem quite familiar and relevant to the present.
This political backdrop should come as no surprise to those familiar with Thai novelist Siburapha’s body of work. Based on his best-selling book Behind the Painting, this musical tells a beautiful love story while staying true to what Siburapha was known for: his dedication to social justice and his ability to write captivating love stories while embedding sometimes dangerous messages that spoke to inequality, politics, and cultural identity.
During the 1920s and ’30s, American culture and influence began to penetrate the Asian world. From manufactured goods to music, dance, and film, American products and the American lifestyle spread across formerly closed borders at an impressive pace. In some places Western culture was well received—especially by the young. In others it was resented and resisted. We find both of these extremes in Waterfall as we to get to know Noppon, the love-struck Thai student who proclaims, “I’m American!” and the Japanese Foreign Minister, Takamoto, who finds American manners to be “atrocious” and “their ethics even worse.”
In fairness to Minister Takamoto, there is a sad history that informs us as to why he and his nation have such negative sentiments towards the United States. Leading up to the 1930s, Western powers had treated immigrants from Japan in a way that was hostile and discriminatory. In 1905 California passed anti-Japanese legislation and a year later, San Francisco’s school board ordered Japanese and Asian children to attend segregated schools. In 1919, Western nations rejected Japan’s request to include a racial equality clause in the League of Nations covenant and in 1924, the United States passed a law severely limiting Japanese immigration. This series of events brings us to the Japan we find in Waterfall, nationalistic and ethnocentric. Kumiko, a Japanese-American woman, speaks to this racially tense side of America as she sings, “America will break your heart.”
Waterfall dramatizes the coming together of three different worlds: American, Japanese, and Siamese which leads to some volatile exchanges. But not all cultural interactions in Waterfall are tense encounters. The relationships between Noppon, Katherine—an American woman—and her husband Chao Khun, sometimes transcend the national and racial divisions of their cultures.
Culturally, however, we do find Katherine struggling. She is torn between being herself—something her Thai husband encourages—and her desire to embrace the customs and expectations of women and wives in Siam. She even asks Nuan, her servant, to teach her how to be a proper Thai wife.
In the early 1930s, Siam began to suffer the effects of the Great Depression. This economic crisis became the catalyst to armed revolution as frustration with the monarchy, rampant government corruption and ineptitude, and the long-suppressed need for social change ignited the demand for a constitutional form of governance. A relatively bloodless regime change resulted in a dynamic shift in how Siam saw itself and how it wanted to be perceived. Waterfall captures this struggle between tradition and modernity as Siam begins to transition into Thailand. The journey is a difficult one for Noppon, who finds himself torn between the new government’s need to lead the Thai people into the 20th century and the unknown effects that modernity will have on the people, the culture, and their ancient heritage.
It is interesting to note that this continued evolution and change has been synonymous with this nation. Since the 1932 revolution, it has had many forms of government, ranging from military dictatorships to electoral democracies. Always, however, a hereditary monarch descending from King Mongut (the monarch from The King and I) has been, at least ceremonially, head of state. The country has also changed names. In 1939, Siam renamed itself Thailand, only to revert to Siam in 1945. Four years later it became Thailand again, a name it holds to this day.
American musical theater has always been a powerful vehicle for social commentary and dialogue. Embedded in those love stories that enamor audiences, we often find conversations about us— society. Waterfall continues in this tradition as it navigates the complexities of a tumultuous time in history.
By KWAPI VENGESAYI, Community Engagement Specialist
Our sincere thanks to Archit Jiamrattanyoo and the Pasadena Playhouse for their contributions to this article.