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Robert Allen Ackerman’s “Blood” Tackles Scandal That Brought AIDS To Japan

Glenne Headly and Rob Yang in "Blood." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2016 – 3:00 PM

The inspiration for Robert Allan Ackerman’s play Blood is a story that had to be told—a little known or remembered incident in the early ‘80s when U.S. companies knowingly sold AIDS-tainted blood to Japan with the collusion of the Japanese government—resulting in the deaths of more than 2,000 hemophilacs.

The impetus for what he terms “a political thriller with music,” is mysterious and worthy of a film in itself, as the now 15-year BH resident, working in Tokyo with a Japanese theatre troupe at the time, was approached by the Japanese film company Fuji, for a screen adaptation of the story and presented with reams of research and videotapes, “with the  idea of implicating Japan on the worldwide stage for conspiring with American drug companies,” says Ackerman. “A lot of my friends told me not to do it. It was dangerous to speak up against the government.”

The film version didn’t pan out, so Ackerman wrote a play, encouraged by his friend actress Glenne Headly (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dick Tracy), who stars in the current production running through Sunday Dec. 18 at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd. (A run in Hollywood earlier this year drew rave reviews, but had to close due to theater availability.)

“The subject matter is so powerful and fascinating,” says Ackerman, “and the idea of dramatizing it was appealing. So I wrote a treatment, but I was wanted not to pursue it. It was so hot my friends were afraid for my safety.”

So he put it away. But then there were incidents like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, “where the government wasn’t telling the truth about the dangers of radiation.” The documentary  The Cove, showed local Japanese government officials involved in the slaughter of dolphins and keeping the Japanese public in the dark about the marketing of dolphin meat. “People expect to be lied to—by corporations and government. So it reminded me of this story; and I thought maybe we could do it as a play.”

Ackerman credits Fuji  with giving him the hook for his play, as it insisted the story be told through the eyes of an American journalist. Headly stars as a Jewish reporter who uncovers the conspiracy and teams with a Korean-Japanese lawyer, whose friend died mysteriously, who heads up the investigation that leads to a suit against the government.

“It was Japan’s dirty secret,” says Ackerman. With a surplus of contaminated blood, drug companies sold to foreign companies with Japan being the biggest buyer. “Everyone knew, everybody was in on it and no one stopped it. It started the AIDS epidemic in Japan,” says Ackerman. “So its a story about taking action against greed, hypocrisy and corruption. And also about about knowing something is wrong and doing nothing to avoid responsibility.”

Ackerman, an Obie and New York Outer Critics Circle Award-winner  wholost many friends in the theater community during the height of the AIDS crisis, has directed both productions. “I  wouldn’t want anyone else to do it and it was written in a specific way to get through 60 scenes.” Three screens on stage move fluidly and choreographically to create spaces, like bars, tea rooms and other locales. “It’s like watching a magic box that keep revealing itself in different ways,” says Ackerman.

“I envisioned Blood as a ‘theatrical opus,’ “ says Ackerman and he mixes Asian and Western elements including KISS makeup, rap, Gilbert & Sullivan riffs, and draws from noh, kyogen, bunraku and kabuki theater styles. “I spent so much time around that kind of theater working with a  Japanese theater company for 25 years that I knew a lot about the culture and incorporated their theater traditions into the work.”

For the last two years, Ackerman has been mentoring Japanese actors who want to launch careers in America. He got to know some of them, and his advising lead to weekly workshops that now meet regularly in a rented garage space on Sawtelle Boulevard in L.A.  Most of the cast—including  Kazumi Aihara, Miho Ando, Takuma Anzai, Peter Chung, Andrew Dits, Anthony Gros,Takaaki Hirakawa, Tomoko Karina, Andrew Nakajima, Daryl L. Padilla, ShinShimizu and Michael Yama—come from The Garage, which also include Korean and Chinese actors.

“Diversity doesn’t always include Asian actors,” says Ackerman. “I’ve made it my mission to help them. The Garage is doing fundraising through contributions and the Indiegogo website.

“Writing it as a theatre piece, it was really dark,” says Ackerman, “It was one awful fact on top of another, too many awful things; and I’m not a political analyst, historian, or an expert on Japanese culture. I’m not at all competent to write a discussion a bureaucrat would have had when he decided to buy tainted blood. I approached it knowing I had to make them evil without knowing how to write evil.” And since he was writing for his own amusement, Ackerman thought it would be fun to make the government ministers into buffoonish clowns dressed as Charlie Chaplin singing music from The Mikado with re-written lyrics like If You Want to Know Who We Are, We’re the Ministers of Nippon  and Caught With Fingers in the Jar

Original music is by his son, The Virgins’ bassist Nick Ackerman and Jet drummer/vocalist Chris Cester. “None are character songs,” says Ackerman. “It’s like a Brechtian musical where the songs comment on what’s going on.”

The actual lawsuit covered in the play lasted eight years.  “The government officials were exonerated, not punished and took no responsibility,” says Ackerman. Plaintiffs were in the news recently, he reports, asking to have the compensation they did get, increased.

A turning point in the story and recreated in the play is a 9-year-old boy screaming in the street, “I have AIDS!” He didn’t die, went on to become a member of the Japanese parliament and has written a piece for the current production’s program.

“The play is about something horrific,” Ackerman says. “But it’s a great story. The music is terrific and the production is unusual and entertaining to watch—and moving and upsetting.” 

Tickets, at $35 for performances Fridays-Sundays, are available by calling 323-960-7745 or visiting

—Steve Simmons

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