Blood, in its world-premiere production at The Complex, boldly tackles an important and shocking subject: the sale by the USA of AIDS-contaminated blood to Japan, Written and directed by Robert Allan Ackerman (who lived in Japan for two decades), the play goes deep into the HIV scandal, blending fact and fiction to tell its story, one which has been kept secret by the powers that be ever since the early 1980s.
Politics and greed were the main culprits in the scandal. Although blood banks in the USA knew enough about the immunodeficiency virus to begin to heat-treat their supply (thereby killing the virus), large supplies of untreated blood were sold to Japan, with the complicity of the director of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (played by Toshi Toda). He and his Japanese pharmaceutical-company cohorts put profits over safety by choosing not to pay to have the blood treated. Chauvinism was another factor: they simply refused to believe that people with “pure” Japanese blood could ever be infected. Only lesser, flawed beings — like hemophiliacs, Koreans and other foreigners–could get AIDS.
In Blood, a Japan-based American reporter (Alexa Hamilton) and a Japanese-Korean lawyer (Sohee Park) lead the battle against the corrupt authorities. Motivated by the AIDS deaths of loved ones, they take the Department of Health to court (it was the first time a Japanese national had sued his government). The ensuing legal battles were fought over a ten-year period, in bitter, bare-knuckles fashion.
Out of fear and shame, many of the victims refused to testify in court; the case for the good guys was not won until a courageous 11-year-old boy (Miho Ando) summoned up the courage to admit publicly that he was suffering from AIDS.
A political thriller like Blood could have been told in a terse, realistic way that focused on the trial. Ackerman, though, made the choice to go in a different, grander, more theatrical direction. After raising sizable funds via an Indiegogo campaign, he was able to put together a large cast (fifteen in all), build a complex set, and commission twelve songs by Nick Ackerman & Chris Cester. The songs are sung by the villains; decked out in raffish costumes, these politicians and corporate honchos caper about like vaudeville comics, raising their voices in praise of greed, corruption and unregulated capitalism.
Does all the buffoonery work well in a play like this? Not for this critic, I’m afraid. I found the sudden tonal changes and interruptions — the Brechtian alienation, as it were — to be distracting and even annoying. They trivialized much of what was serious and compelling about Blood, turned tragedy into farce.
That’s not to say, though, that the play doesn’t have powerful and memorable moments, or that the largely Asian-American cast does not do itself proud.