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When Maya Rieselbach earned the title role in the latest Northern Light Junior Theatre play, the character hit close to home.
Rieselbach, a sixth grader at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, stars in this weekend's production of "A Story of Sadako," a true-to-life version of the familiar tale of a young girl who bravely battles leukemia, the result of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
Rieselbach's grandmother, Chieko Mitchell, was working in a factory in Matsuyama, about 50 miles southeast of Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb was dropped. Rieselbach said her grandmother saw a large flash of light on the horizon when the bomb hit - but that wasn't the extent of her wartime experience.
"Her house was bombed, too," Rieselbach said. "She was 14, and was really scared. When she went back to her house and it wasn't there, she went to search for her mom. All the people who were living around there were hiding, and she found her mom there."
Rieselbach said she feels more connected to this play because of her grandmother.
"I knew the brief story, but I never knew the details until I did this play," she said.
Mitchell now lives in Anchorage, and her memories were passed along to the cast through Maya's mother, Joann, as part of study groups that traditionally accompany Northern Light plays. Director J. Althea brought in four speakers to teach the class about the events and time period in the play.
A sign on the set reads, "This is our cry. This is our prayer. To bring peace to the world." It's a theme that runs through the play about Sadako Sasaki, who was a toddler when Hiroshima was bombed. When Sadako was in sixth grade, she came down with leukemia. She decided to follow a traditional Japanese belief that a person who folds 1,000 paper cranes will live forever, and with her courage and persistence she taught the world a wonderful lesson.
"Believe in your dreams, keep trying, never give up," Rieselbach said of the play's themes. "I think that's really cool, to believe, even though it was just a fantasy that you would live forever if you folded a thousand cranes, she just kept going and never gave up."
A thousand cranes might seem like a lot of paper and time - and it was, Rieselbach said.
"We had a crane folding party, because only a few people knew how to fold cranes," she said. "I folded most of those (on stage) during the rehearsals when I was lying in bed and had to keep folding."
The cast had 202 cranes at their dress rehearsal last weekend, but classes at some local schools are folding cranes and donating enough so that there will be 1,000 for opening night.
"A Story of Sadako" was written by Mimi Katano, who grew up in Japan and was upset by inaccuracies in the popular book, "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes." Katano's version stays true to the actual people, events and details.
"The book ... is actually factually incorrect," said Veronica Narvaez, an eighth-grader at Floyd Dryden Middle School who plays five roles in the play. "It says (Sadako) only folded a little over 600 cranes, when she really folded over 1,000, and it (also) had a whole bunch of random people who weren't real."
The play includes a lot of traditional Japanese music, some played by cast members on bongo drums, tambourines, maracas, and other percussion instruments.
"A Story of Sadako" plays at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 8-9, at Northern Light United Church. Tickets - available at Hearthside Books - are $8 for adults, and $5 for senior citizens and students in grades 1-12. Due to the subject matter, the play is not recommended for children under age 6.