Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Bringing a 'cesspool to sushiland' life to the stage

Show tells story of Stefhen Bryan's journey from poverty in Jamaica to sex and self-discovery in Japan

“Coming to Japan was the best decision I’ve ever made,” says Stefhen Bryan, loud and enthusiastically, contrasting with the frown he was making a moment earlier at the miso-flavored ramen he’d ordered and just tasted. “Should’ve gotten the salt-flavored.”

I had ordered the salt-flavored, and offered to swap with him. His spirits rose as we exchanged bowls, while the attractive waitress at this popular ramen shop in Jiyugaoka stood by watching this transaction with a bewildered smile painted on her face. Glancing around, you wouldn’t have known we were the center of attention amid this bustling shop filled with people who were effectively pretending as if they hadn’t noticed us at all. But we were.

“Best decision ever?” I say. “Why’s that?”

“Well, I think Japan made me very happy to be black, and in a way validated my blackness,” he says, sipping and grinning approvingly at the ramen. “Japan showed me that it’s not that bad being black after all.”

“Uh huh . . .”

“Yeah! When I came to Japan everybody wanted to be me, but I was already me. Everybody wanted to consume my culture but this is my culture. Everybody even wanted my hair. People were paying up to ¥70,000 ($600 in 2001) to get a kinky perm, and people were coming up to me saying, ‘Where did you get your perm?’ and I was like, ‘Nah, this is my f-cking hair! This is natural!’ ”

Bryan is a slender man with a big voice that carries. When he speaks, he speaks to the room. He projects like a mic-less actor in a play might be instructed to do by a director, loud enough to be heard by that person sitting in the rear of the theater near the exit — loud enough that a person walking past the entrance to the theater might wonder, “What’s going on in there?”

It wasn’t difficult to imagine that booming voice in a one-man show. It was made for the stage. You get the impression, walking alongside him down a busy Tokyo thoroughfare, that his whole life here in Japan consists of a series of public command performances. While many conspicuous foreigners here often go out of their way to avoid drawing any more attention than their non-Japaneseness already warrants, Bryan seemed to be aiming for just the opposite. Many people think small, but Bryan comes off as larger than life. So it wasn’t surprising to find that fitting in has plagued him most of his life.

“In the West, when I was around Jamaicans or African-Americans, I really didn’t fit in,” he says. “But I felt right at home in Japan. I didn’t feel any pressure to fit in, because I knew I couldn’t. And I was comfortable with that. Japan actually made me finally accept myself, accept my quirks and made me very comfortable with the person I am. That was huge!

“It was a pleasure to get on the train, and look at people and think, ‘Yeah, none of you motherf-ckers look like me! And I don’t look like any of you motherf-ckers! That’s right: A n-gger is on the train! How you like me now, motherf-ckers! And I love that!”

“Besides,” he adds after slurping up a mouthful of the noodles, Japanese-style, “if I hadn’t come to Japan I’d probably still be having frequent sojourns in minimum security prisons. Probably maximum security by now. But Japan was my chance to leave all that f-ckery behind.”

When pressed for details on these jail stints and the crimes that landed him there, Bryan invokes the name of his one man-show, “Doodu Boy,” and its blurb: “an autobiographical story about a boy born to an abusive mother and absent father and his struggles to find unconditional love across three continents.” He explains he doesn’t want to spoil people’s experience by divulging major plot points.

Bryan’s childhood was spent in a Jamaican ghetto, where he fell into trouble that garnered him the nickname “Doodu Boy.” Later he’d escape to America for a reunion with his estranged father, but that would only lead him down a dark path. After discovering shocking new facts about his origins, he suffered depression and made several attempts on his own life.

He’d eventually undergo 16 years of cognitive behavioral therapy that would do wonders toward putting him on the road to sound mental health, but he says it was his decision to begin life anew here in the Land of the Rising Sun that did him the most good. Though he’d be the first to admit he initially immigrated to Japan solely to indulge his extreme fixation with East and Southeast Asian women, Japan’s other distractions didn’t escape his notice.

“I appreciated all the beauty in Japan,” he says, clearly overjoyed to be back in-country after an extended stay in the U.S. “Growing up in the shantytowns of Kingston, Jamaica, my psyche was very delicate and so I liked beautiful surroundings, and beautiful aesthetics, and Japan offered me that immediately.”

Part of the recovery, as the subtitle of his play — “the Search for Love From Cesspool to Sushiland” — suggests, has been the acquisition of love and self-acceptance in Japan. It was the challenge of a lifetime, one he was only able to claim victory over after overcoming yet another malady of sorts: sex addiction, a condition he chronicled and made public via his first work of nonfiction, “Black Passenger, Yellow Cabs: Of Exile and Excess In Japan.”

In that book, Bryan described his carnal adventures through a cultural lens that touched on interracial relationships, promiscuity, patriarchy and abortion. The ultimate “shock jock,” Howard Stern, had a decidedly different — and hilarious — take on it, though. Bryan’s interview on Stern’s radio show, discussing his sexcapades in Asia, was simply must-hear radio!

“If you’re not sex-addicted before you come to Japan, this is the place that you’ll become sex-addicted,” he says when pressed about his former affliction, a spark of nostalgia in his eyes and half a bowl of rapidly cooling ramen before him. “But if you’re sex-addicted before you come to Japan, well, this is like being in a crack house!”

Though derived partially from “Black Passenger,” unlike that book, the play — which has had successful runs in Los Angeles as well as on Broadway (as part of the United Solo theater festival) — focuses primarily on the relationship with his father, a dynamic that Bryan says doesn’t get nearly enough attention in the black community. It was produced by Debra Ehrhardt of “Jamaica, Farewell” fame, and the man responsible for the play’s direction and dramaturgy is Jared Scheib.

“At first Stefhen thought the show would focus on his sexual rampage through Japan,” Jared explained. “After a few months of drafting such a show, it was increasingly clear to me that we were missing a much deeper, more vulnerable, more powerful story that was inside Stefhen. So we scrapped months of work and started focusing on Stefhen’s relationship to his father and mother from the beginning of his life memory.”

And together, wrote Melonie Magruder of the Santa Monica Daily Press, “they illustrated Bryan’s life from abused childhood through a youth struggling for identity, to adulthood stripped of hubris, revealing a hard-won peace. It makes for a mesmerizing 95 minutes.”

“Bryan’s performance is . . . stunning!” said Shelaagh Ferrell, Scoop LA’s theater critic, of his performance at the Santa Monica Playhouse during its run there. “He embodies a very true and convincing version of his child, teen and adult self. He takes on board all the many male and female characters in the piece, which include among others, his mother, father, stepmother, the pastor, church women, sexually needy Japanese women and a hilariously funny Japanese doctor, without caricaturing. Instead, he slinks smoothly and effortlessly into their bodies.”

“And, now you’re back in Japan . . .”

“Yes, I’m back,” Bryan says. “For the time being.”

“About to make the Japan debut of your smash-hit play.”

“It’s being translated into Japanese as well,” he says. “I’m going to perform it in the Kansai dialect.”

“That’s remarkable.”

“It’s a very surreal experience,” he says, peering down at his half-eaten bowl of ramen, a layer of gelatinous skin forming on its surface. “Should’ve gotten the soy-flavored.”

“Doodu Boy” makes its Japan debut at the The Pink Cow — Restaurant, Art Bar & Funky Space in Roppongi, Tokyo, with three performances: two on Sunday, Feb. 15, and one on Monday, Feb. 16. For further details, see bit.ly/dooduboytokyo. Bryan’s books, “Black Passenger Yellow Cabs: A Memoir of Exile and Excess in Japan” and “Only Begotten,” are available on Amazon. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

Coronavirus banner