It was quite a convergence. In March 2014, Vassar choir members traveled to Japan to join singers, dancers, musicians and theater artists from four continents for a special musical collaboration between the College and the Ashinaga foundation. Titled At Home in the World, the production featured the dancing, singing and drumming talents of children from Uganda and Japan in addition to the singers from Vassar, performing Japanese, African and American music. Directed by the famed London-based theater director John Caird, who has earned Tony Awards for directing Les Misérables and Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway, At Home in the World was presented to large and enthusiastic audiences in Tokyo as well as in Sendai, chief city of the region of Japan that had been hardest hit by the great earthquake and tsunami exactly three years before.
The story of the performances began with an unlikely connection between Ashinaga and Vassar. The novel Daddy-Long-Legs, published in 1912 and written by Vassar alumna Jean Webster, Class of 1901, tells the tale of an orphan whose education at an unnamed women’s college (suspiciously familiar to those who know Vassar) is sponsored by an anonymous gentleman she calls “Daddy-Long-Legs.” An immediate worldwide success, Webster’s novel has been immensely popular in Japan ever since its publication – and it inspired Ashinaga founder Yoshiomi Tamai to name his organization, which provides education and psychological support to children around the world who have lost one or both parents (“ashinaga” means “long legs” in Japanese).
Among its many good works, Ashinaga runs programs in Japan for those who have lost parents in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and in Uganda for those who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS. Children who had lost parents in these tragedies comprised the young Ugandan and Japanese cast members of At Home in the World. Christine Howlett, associate professor of music and director of choral activities, worked closely with Caird on the development of the material and directed both the Vassar and Ugandan singers. Lance Ringel, a senior writer at Vassar, created the original script.
Since Tamai first made a pilgrimage to the Vassar campus in 2012 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the novel’s publication, his foundation and the College have had an ongoing and growing relationship, based on their mutual goal of making education broadly accessible to young people, especially those who otherwise might have been denied the opportunity. One wonderful result has been At Home in the World, which will be performed in a revised version in New York, Washington and Tokyo in 2015. Another is that Ashinaga has become one of the largest providers of internships to Vassar students, in both Japan and Uganda.