“Blood,” a new play currently at the Complex on Theatre Row in Hollywood, dramatizes an actual Japanese legal case that unfolded over many years and came to be known as the tainted blood scandal.
Playwright/director Robert Allan Ackerman said his script blends fact and fiction. “The general facts of it are all true,” he said. “Some of the characters are fictionalized. They’re actually condensations of many characters.”
The details of the case are complicated, but, in the end, it was proven that the heads of several Japanese pharmaceutical companies, with the collusion of Japanese government ministers, knowingly imported and sold HIV-contaminated blood products from the United States, all the while assuring the public the products were safe. This continued even after a heating process that killed HIV was developed in 1983 by drug companies in the U.S.
Some 2,000 Japanese hemophiliacs in need of blood are believed to have contracted AIDS from infected agents during the 1980s.
By 1985, some heated blood products were being imported into Japan; however, the companies apparently wanted to profit from their existing stock of untreated product and continued to sell the tainted materials. They also wanted to develop their own heating process to diminish competition from America. In 1996, a newly appointed Japanese health minister uncovered nine hidden files, which he said were definite proof of the conspiracy.
Ackerman who worked in Japan intermittently over a 20-year period, said he was there directing a play as the scandal was breaking. He recalled being approached by a Japanese film company that asked if he would be interested in making a movie about the subject. They provided him with extensive research, and he eventually wrote a treatment.
“My friends told me, ‘You’d better not do this. You’re going to get a bullet in your head.’ And so I put the thing away, and I didn’t look at it for years, until just recently, when I thought maybe I could turn it into a theater piece,” he said. “I mentor this Japanese group of actors [the Garage]. And they wanted to do a play, so I said, ‘I have this in my drawer.’ ”
Early in the play, a Jewish-American reporter (Alexa Hamilton) reunites with a Japanese friend (Takuma Anzai), who becomes mysteriously ill and dies. The reporter learns from a Japanese-Korean lawyer (Sohee Park) that her friend was a hemophiliac and regularly injected himself with blood products. She and the lawyer hear about other hemophiliacs in Japan who are dying, and they begin to suspect that blood infected with HIV is the cause. They continue probing, learn from witnesses about the wrongdoing, and eventually encourage AIDS-infected patients to file a lawsuit against five drug companies, the health ministry and the AIDS research committee.
When the lawsuit begins, the plaintiffs are shielded from view in a tent. They are loath to reveal their identity because of the shame in Japanese culture of having AIDS. Several years into the suit, a teenage plaintiff, who contracted AIDS as a child of about 10, and who wants an apology even more than a financial settlement, takes his boom box out in the street and announces that the government gave him AIDS, thereby making the court case public and attracting a great deal of media attention. The character is based on a real young man who, seemingly miraculously, went from being infected with AIDS to being disease-free. He is now a 40 year-old husband, father and member of the Japanese Parliament.
The musical numbers in the play that feature the government ministers are set to the score of “The Mikado” and contain sharply humorous lyrics. “My idea of making the villains into buffoons and, sort of vaudeville comics, I feel, is a very good choice given what’s going on now in the Republican primary.
“And I think by making them comedic, it reveals their evil without having to write this malicious dialogue that I wouldn’t really know how to write. I was doing it really for theatrical effect.”
Like the reporter in his play, Ackerman is Jewish. Though he said he is not observant, he does feel his heritage, which includes religious grandparents, informs his work.
“I would think my sense of humor — I would think a certain amount of human kindness, if you want to call it that, compassion … has a lot to do with having been brought up Jewish. In most all of my work, I can see that. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that consciously, but I certainly see it as a theme in all of my work. I’m usually drawn to stories that are about somehow repairing the world — speaking truth to power.”
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