Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | theater
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snowfallingoncedars-BenandArleneMany Japanese Americans who've grown up since World War II -- myself included -- dreaded December 7 every year. As kids (and sometimes as adults) we've been taunted with hateful calls to "Go home, Jap!," "Go back where you cam from!" and the classic, "Remember Pearl Harbor!" As if we could forget. The war happened decades ago, and as Japanese Americans we had nothing to do with the attack on the U.S. military on Hawaii that sparked America's entry into WWII. Hell, today, most people in Japan had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. Yet, I still feel wary when I go out on Dec. 7. Although I haven't faced a dumb remark in years now, I know that feeling is always there, just beneath the surface of civility. The ugliness comes out, perversely, when a tragedy occurs in Japan, like the "It's God's revenge for Pearl Harbor!" comments that were tweeted out after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan. So we decided this year, we'd face our trepidation directly. We bought tickets for "Snow Falling on Cedars," the stage version of David Guterson's award-winning 1994 novel about the after-effects of post-war racial hatred against Japanese Americans in a small Pacific northwest community. The book was made into an atmospheric film in 1999 starring Ethan Hawke that was nominated for a cinematography Oscar. Seeing the play at the Vintage Theatre in Aurora would help exorcise the Pearl Harbor demons, we figured, even as it reminded us of the hysteria that the bombing caused. That hysteria led just a few months later to the imprisonment of almost 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry -- half American citizens, born in the U.S. -- in concentration camps away from the West Coast.

daleli Colorado's first Asian American theater company, Theatre Esprit Asia (TEA), has launched its debut season with a pair of one-person plays in repertory, and I was fortunate to see one of them, "Dust Storm," last week starring Dale Li. If you haven't seen this or the other play, "Spirit and Sworded Treks" starring Maria Cheng, hurry -- they run tonight through Sunday, and then close after next weekend. "Dust Storm" is a monologue about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. It's loosely constructed on a real incident, an attack on Chiura Obata, a celebrated artist, in Topaz, an internment camp in Utah. The story is told from the perspective of Seiji, an angry teenager who's imprisoned at Topaz (with his family, but he abandons them to hang with a bunch of tough teens). Like Obata, Seiji was rounded up in Berkeley, California after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which allowed the camps to be built. Anyone of Japanese descent in the Bay Area, including U.S.-born citizens like Seiji, were told they could pack whatever they could carry, and were first sent to a temporary holding center before being transferred to Topaz.

mikado I recently blogged about a video produced by the City of Los Angeles – using taxpaper money – that was originally produced with good intentions: Explaining the importance of recycling water. But to make its point, the video used a ghastly, stereotypical caricature of geishas played by non-Asians with painted faces wearing kimonos, including one played by a non-Asian man. Of course, they spoke in “ching-chong” Japanesey accents. It's disturbing that it's OK even in 2013 to caricature Asians with the most shallow racial stereotypes -- ones that have been used to depict us for 150 years. There’s a long tradition in Hollywood and show business in general of “yellowface” – non-Asians (usually Caucasians) cast as Asians. The most egregious example is probably the horrid character of Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s," in which Mickey Rooney played the part to the hilt with buck teeth, thick glasses, squinty eyes and a terrible accent. But wait, there's more! He played a perverted lech of a photographer who keeps trying to shoot pictures of his downstairs neighbor Holly Golightly (imagine this name pronounced in a horrible fake Japanese accent), played by Audrey Hepburn. There are many, many examples of yellowface going back to Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando playing Chinese and Japanese characters with their eyes taped back in classic films such as “Dragon Seed” and “Tea House of the August Moon,” all the way to last year’s big-budget sci-fi flick “Cloud Atlas,” in which Hugo Weaving (of “Matrix” and "Lord of the Rings” fame) was among the cast who played both white and Asian parts, with hideously phony-looking makeup. It's not just on the big screen. Yellowface has also been a tradition on the stage, and I happened to see two plays recently that used elements of the practice, with varying results. Gilbert & Sullivan’s famous 1885 comic opera “The Mikado” is known for its social satire; the musical pokes fun at British politics and society by using Japan as the setting for its wacky love story. But the Japan it portrays is the Japan that people in the late 1800s fantasized about: Exotic, utterly foreign and just plain strange. To ensure that it only depicts simpleminded stereotypes, W.S. Gilbert based the play on a fictional Japan that had just been opened to Western commerce, but he didn’t bother to do any research to make his portrayal of Japanese culture realistic at all. Instead, he named the village where “The Mikado” takes place “Titipu” and gave his characters improbably names such as “Nanki-poo” and “Yum-Yum.”

Gwendoline Yeo, an actress and musician, is writing a funny and powerful autobiographical one-woman show about growing up an Asian American who immigrated as a child from Singapore. We saw an awesome theatrical performance over the weekend, as part of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' "Stories on Stage" series of dramatic literary readings. The performance was a draft of "Laughing with My Mouth Wide Open," a work in progress. It's a one-woman show by Gwendoline Yeo, an actress and musician from Los Angeles whose script is an autobiographical look back at her life as an Asian American who immigrated as a child from Singapore. Yeo sat on an austere stage accompanied by only one other actor sitting at the back, who read the light and sound cues from the script, as well as some lines as the Speak and Spell toy she speaks to as a child, and later, a college professor who befriends, and then betrays her. Set up on one side of the stage was a guzheng, or Chinese zither, which Yeo played with great passion and ability several times during the performance. She read from a script she held in her hand -- this was only the second time she'd performed the entire piece in front of an audience. The first time was the same day during a matinee reading. The only prop on stage was the Speak and Spell. Although the completed one-woman play will have props and furniture and costuming, the lovely Yeo didn't need any embellishments to hold the audience's attention. She had us laughing and thinking, inspired and outraged, as we followed her life from an 11-year-old from Singapore, raised by a strict, authoritarian father and strict, traditional mother, competing for attention with a perfect, over-achieving "model minority" sister and a freakish but cool brother whose love for cowboys has turned him permanently into a drawling, American-style country boy. Her stories are full of sharp observations about cultural differences, and the journey that all immigrants, not just Asians, undertake to become Americanized. She recites stereotypes of white people when her father announces the family is moving to San Francisco in a week. In an effort to fit in at her private school in San Francisco, young Gwendoline tries to hang with a gang of Asian chicks who identify more with African Americans and speak "Chinkbonics," but can't quite make it through the initiation crime. She wants to break family tradition and attend college in Los Angeles instead of UC-Berkeley, where her sister and brother go. She wants to study communications, not medicine or law, which are the two choices her father gives her. She gets in trouble with her parents for coming home with a B on a test. The scenes are full of insights about traditional Asian values butting up against American ambitions. She tells these stories with incredible humor, and mostly keeps us laughing out loud with our mouth open -- something that she points out early in the play, is what white people in America do, but not Asians.

MAY 2011 UPDATE: After a year and a half of hard work, revisions and improvements, East West Players has opened a finished production of "Krunk Fu Battle Battle" which runs through June 26, 2011. If you're in LA or gonna be in LA, don't miss this musical -- we wish we could fly from Denver to see it! Here's a video trailer: Now, back to the original post: It's not often that we get the chance to see the embryonic stage of a theatrical project, and see how a play is developed. So we were fortunate that our visit to LA to attend the BANANA conference of Asian American bloggers coincided with a free "workshop" performance of a new project being developed by East West Players. "Krunk Fu Battle Battle," is a hip-hop musical, which features hip-hop music and b-boy dancing, woven around familiar but tried-and-true plots of a boy who falls in love with a girl from the other side, and has a mentor who helps him overcome his obstacles. Think "Romeo and Juliet" meets "West Side Story" meets "Karate Kid." East West Players produced a reading of the play, which is in very early stages, by rehearsing a partial script, several songs and dance numbers, and performing a 35-minute excerpt for anyone who showed up, then asked audience members for their opinions and reactions. The preview was hosted by the Japanese American National Museum (the EW Players' home, the David Henry Hwang Theatre around the block in Little Tokyo, was busy with performances of its latest play, "Po Boy Tango").

Tamlyn TomitaErin and I are taking September off from doing interviews for visualizAsian.com, our series of live conversations with leading Asian American Pacific Islanders. But we're kicking off October with a star: Tamlyn Tomita, whose inspirational career as an actor spans movies, television and the stage, and whose leadership and activism spans the Japanese American and Asian American Pacific Islander communities. Our conversation with Tamlyn Tomita will be on Tuesday, October 6 at 6 pm Pacific Time (7 pm MT, 8 pm CT and 9 pm ET) is archived as an MP3 and is available for download for a limited time. When we thought of starting visualizAsian.com, Tamlyn was the first person we thought of to interview, because of her prominence and passion, and because we'd met her on the set of "Only the Brave," Lane Nishikawa's powerful movie about the Japanese American soldiers of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. She was funny, approachable, salty and very real. I have a very vivid memory of her during the filming, taking a break between scenes by sitting in her pickup truck (this was a low-budget production -- no trailers for the stars). She was yelling and screaming and so animated we thought something was wrong. It turned out she's a huge LA Lakers fan, and was listening to the playoff game in progress. Last year, we saw her again at the Democratic National Convention, when I was one of the emcees at an APIA Vote Gala along with Tomita and Joie Chen, formerly of CNN. She's a passionate, exciting and entertaining public speaker, and I've since seen her on video (just search YouTube) giving lots of speeches and serving as an emcee on many Japanese American and Asian American community events.


Members of the Grateful Crane Ensemble's "Moonlight Serenaders" in "The Camp Dance: The Music & The Memories," include (front row) Keiko Kawashima and Jason Fong; (back row) Kurt Kuniyoshi, Darrell Kunitomi and Haruye Ioka. (Photo by Phil Nee)
You wouldn't think that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II would make for great source material for a stage musical. But it does, and in a way, makes a much more effective vehicle to tell people about that time, and what happened to JA families, than heavier, dramatic works such as the novel and movie, "Snow Falling on Cedars." "The Camp Dance: The Music & the Memories" is proof that internment can be explained in an entertaining way through a musical. Written and produced by Soji Kashiwagi, a sansei, and performed by his Grateful Crane Ensemble of actors, the play combines narration (the actors announcing what's going on on the stage), acting (there's plenty of terrific, believable and historically accurate dialogue), music and dance to entertain and educate audiences about the internment experience.