Friday, October 30, 2009

Oscar Wilde Quote

"The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life." - Oscar Wilde

I love that quote, not just because I love theatre best of all the arts (and it's the only one I can do), but because it really captures what I love most about it - it's purpose is to bring art to life and life to art.  It's purpose is practical, tangible, though its rewards are far beyond the practical and the tangible - done well, one comes away with a better understanding of life, of one's self, of one's fellow humans.

It is my wish that this play will help take us into the heads of these very specific people in this very specific time; that for a couple of hours, we will disappear, and come out in the end knowing something more than understanding.

Friday, October 23, 2009

James Michener Quote

"I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter."  – James Michener

I'm not a very good rewriter either, but let's use that quote for inspiration and pretend that I am!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rehearsal and Readings

We had the first of two rehearsals for our two upcoming readings last night and I can't tell you how anxious I was to hear the play.  Many years ago, I used to curate the two seperate reading series that EWP used to do, and I was always a big fan of 'em, as the people I used to spam incessantly can attest.  I've talked to more than one person who liked readings sometimes more than the eventual productions, and I have to admit, I'll say that easily more than 50% of the time I've heard or participated in staged or unstaged readings, I've ended up liking them better than the full productions.  I think it's the PURITY of them:  Just the actors and the words.  The essence of a story.  A friend of mine tonight said that she liked readings because "it's like being read to."

And of course...that's exactly what it is...with the added plus that you're being read to by artists.

Anyway, as a theater administrator, I understood the utility of the abstract.  They're for development, right?  As a writer...I can't tell you what an absolute necessity they are.  We've done a couple of informal readings in our living rooms to hear this play, and they've been invaluable.  But there's nothing like the reality that this sucker's going to be heard - both for the actors and the writer - to focus everyone involved, especially (maybe) the writer.

Alone, for months, you tinker.  You think of the things people have said to you, you add this, subtract that, move this to another place, and you fool around with it.  It's all very necessary - you need to doodle, and because text takes up so little space on your computer, you can doodle into infinity.  But you really can't, because pretty soon, the whole thing becomes abstract because you've been doodling for months and pretty soon, the thing looks more like a mathematical equation than a story.

And me?  I suck at math.

So, if you're extremely lucky, like we are, you know a lot of really talented artists, and you ask them to do a reading, and they agree, and you rehearse, and with really smart and talented artists, you can see what works, and what doesn't, fairly quickly.  Some things, the jury's out on:  Actors have to find it, the director has to find it, the audience is going to be the final ingredient that will either make the recipe work or not, so there's some stuff that you'll have to wait on.  But there's plenty of stuff that you can see:  That's on me.  That one, I've gotta fix.

I've got a dream cast, I've got my favorite director, I've got my friends.  We're on our way.  Hope to see you this Sunday.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Original Cover

The Amazon reviewer mentioned her dislike of the 1970s-era cover of NO NO BOY.  Here's the original graphic from the 1957 version: 

Amazon Customer Review of No No Boy (the novel)

(The following is a customer review from one Joan Zabelka.  Sharon came across it while looking for something else and thought it was so well written, she passed it along to me.  Joan kindly said we could reprint it here.)

"The cover is awful. I would have passed right by this disturbing picture and moved on to something more appealing. Fortunately, I had to read this for a class.I had to move beyond the cover and I'm so glad I did.

Okada's story is about starting over - starting over when you don't want to, starting over when you don't even know where to begin, starting over when ending it all is a viable option.

Set in post World War II, it tells the story of Ichiro, a twenty something Japanese man who returns from prison after refusing to serve in the army. Life in the internment camp and prison could not compare to the torture chamber that he set up in his own mind. Will he ever be able to move beyond his mother's dream of returning to Japan towards his own desire to feel truly American.

Second generation immigrants will be able to identify with Ichiro. Living with one foot in each world is not an easy task. Any one who is on a journey of starting over or rediscovering who they are will be encouraged by Ichiro's journey." - Joan Zabelka

There is no way I could've said that better myself.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Educator Letter

Say, are you a teacher, a professor, community leader, or anyone who might be interested in bringing a group to see our full production of NO NO BOY next spring?  Or do you know of someone in a similar position?  Below is a letter we've sent out to the educators we know (admittedly, only a handful) and I thought I'd publish it here as an invitation to anyone who'd like to see the reading to judge for themselves whether or not they'd like to bring a group.  It'll be totally stripped down with minimal staging, no props, costumes, etc. but I think with this kick-ass cast, you'll get a hint of the power of the full production.  Words and actors, man, I think that's all you need to start.  The letter is below - if you can use it, or can pass it along, please do!  Contact information is included!

Dear Friend:

We will be presenting the world premiere of a new play based on John Okada’s NO-NO BOY by Ken Narasaki this spring at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. In preparation for this production, we will be doing a couple of workshop readings at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica (2pm on October 25) and at the Japanese American National Museum (2pm on October 31) in Little Tokyo.

No-No Boy has been taught in Asian American Studies Classes since its second publication in the 1970s; originally published in 1957, it has had a tremendous impact on at least two generations of Asian American writers, performers, artists, students, and academics. Set in Seattle after the end of World War II, the story focuses on the fictional Ichiro Yamada, a young Japanese American who refused to serve in the U.S. Army after being interned with his family. He answers the infamous questions 27 and 28 on a loyalty oath administered to men of draft age in the internment camps “No” and “No” and thus becomes known, along with the other men who answered the same, as a “No-No Boy”. Returning home after two years in prison, he reconnects with Freddie, another “No-No Boy”, and Kenji, a veteran of the famous 442nd Battalion, who has lost a part of his leg and may be dying. He meets Emi, a young woman whose husband has signed up for another tour of duty, ashamed that her father was repatriated back to Japan. Each of these characters must consider their futures in their community and their country, and Ichiro must find peace within his family and within himself. Gordon Hirabayashi, who tried to challenge the constitutionality of the internment camps, says that John Okada’s book “heralded the beginning of an authentic Japanese American literature.”
This would be an excellent opportunity to introduce students to this compelling story as a new piece of theater. We are encouraging college and high school groups to attend this production and will be offering group discounts and will be happy to schedule post-show discussions for your students or group with the playwright and actors.
We would like to invite you to attend one of our readings to see for yourself if this play would be a fit with your syllabus; if so, we can give you more information about the full production. The cast for our reading includes (in alphabetical order) Keiko Agena, Emily Kuroda, John Miyasaki, Sharon Omi, Sab Shimono, Jin Suh, Greg Watanabe, Ping Wu, and Robert Wu; the readings and the production will be directed by award-winning director Alberto Isaac. You can find more information about these readings at:

Please give us a call at 310.592.1160 to reserve your free tickets.

Thanks for your time and hope to see you at the readings.


Sharon Omi

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fathers and Sons

Part of what makes studying the era right after the war so endlessly fascinating to me is that it provides an excuse to look at the things that shaped my parents - mostly my father, really, because like my most men my age, I found my father completely unknowable.  Will Ferrell, hosting SNL at the end of last season, did a mock actor-y monologue spoofing the adult son's bitter monologue to his dying and silent father.  It was brilliant and hilarious, but it was so damn close to the monologue I wrote (and eventually performed) in INNOCENT WHEN YOU DREAM that my response changed from amused appreciation to "OmigodIwanttodierightnow!"

But I'll cut myself some slack - I'm not alone in my unresolved feelings and what the hey, every attempt to understand our parents is an attempt to understand ourselves, and in the case of many ethnic folks, it's an attempt to understand the collective WE.

An old friend from San Francisco, Randall Nakano, wrote to me last week.  We'd acted together in a few plays at the Asian American Theater Company - he was a bit older than me and had a little girl.  I saw him at an audition once with his little girl upon whom he doted and who clearly adored him, and I thought:  "Man.  I want me one of them daughters, that looks like that would be so cool."  Wish granted.   I lost touch with Randall after we moved to LA, so it was so good to hear from him for so many reasons.  I asked him if I could share with you part of what he wrote, and he graciously assented:  It's a story about him and his father:

  "Very excited (thrilled) to hear you're adapting John
  Okada's 'No-No Boy' for the stage.  It was a major, significant read in my
  life. It was a story that spoke to me deeply.  To this day it connects me
  to my father.
  I remember like it was just yesterday when I,  just out of college
  unfairly, self-righteously, insensitively,
  stupid-youthfully, confronted him of
  why he allowed the govt. to incarcerate him and all the
  other Nisei men andwomen.  The hippy son, middle-class comfortable,
  pseudo-firebrand social/political activist, self-righteous in his
  indignation, indirectly accusing his proud father of being weak, pathetic, wrong to
  allow such a violation; so unfair of me, such naiveté and lack of
  knowledge and understanding.  My dad died too young at 62.  I never had
  a chance to  apologize to him for my callowness .

When my sister and I
were going through his things to keep, discard, etc. we came across in
  his wallet, a
  creased, folded, scrap of paper, like a treasured, secret keepsake. It was the
  questions from the loyalty questionnaire cut out from
  the other pages.  It was like he carried it as a burden to
  bear or a cross to carry.  Dad had just gotten married, mom was pregnant
  with their first child, he had a job with the Calif. Board of Equalization
  (an unheard of gig for an oriental in those times of discrimination) when the
  war broke out and  their world crumbled and tumbled into a camp in Colorado.
 I know it’s current to say that Asian American literature should move
  on from the internment, “anti”-sentiments, and the victims who bear the  scars
  of the 20th century.
  But the process results in the progress. We’re experiencing it now..."

I so totally agree, Randy.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Good and bad are equally valid choices. We just prefer the good." - Peter Sarsgaard

October 3, 2009: I wrote about worry yesterday, and worry in this case is just fear of being "bad." We went to a screening last night of Nick Hornsby's AN EDUCATION (excellent, btw, if extremely discomfiting at times), and there was a Q & A afterwards. Peter Sarsgaard did an hilarious impression of their Danish director, the point being you could never tell if she liked something or hated it because her manner, her affect, and her intonation was always the same, regardless: "Peter...that was very, very...good" or "Peter...that was very, very...bad." He said he got to like that way of working, saying it took out the "reward the actor when he's good, hit him when he's bad" type of direction, making him feel like "Good and bad are equally valid choices. We just prefer the good."

Kind of takes the worry out, when you look at it that way.

October 2, 2009

I have worried about everything I've written. Of course, there are the regular, pedestrian worries - "Does this suck? Do I suck?" - but there are always worries specific to the things we write. I had a ball writing GHOSTS AND BAGGAGE, but when it came time to produce it, I worried "What will my parents think?" The male character was pretty pissed off at his father, who was safely dead, though my own father wasn't and surely recognized some of the arguments. I also worried "What will my in-laws think?" (I had my wife Sharon engaging in various acts of simulated sex onstage just a few feet away from them), and what was once a gleefully liberating sexual romp in my head became "What was I THINKING of?" when a production became imminent.
I worried less about THE MIKADO PROJECT, because I had a brilliant co-writer named Dorie Baizley with whom to share the blame, though as we got closer to opening, I began to worry if people would recognize their own characters (one of whom was not intended to be based on anyone, though the actor somehow channeled a very specific figure whom he didn't even know) and, of course, I worried that I had gotten in way over my head in teaming up to write a musical, a form about which I know so little.
I SHOULD HAVE worried more about INNOCENT WHEN YOU DREAM, which drew quite a bit from a week spent in a hospital with my dying father and my three sisters. Written in stages over the course of a number of years, it went through many drafts, and I was mostly preoccupied with the entirely invented part of the story and had disguised the part that was a little closer to my own family's experience. Strangely enough, after much cutting and pasting and rearranging and more cutting, what we ended up with in the hospital scenes were moments amazingly close to what had actually happened. The central conflict between the siblings was invented, as were some more humorous aspects of their characters, but the dialogue that remained was at times verbatim, which I only realized when I found myself saying the words onstage just a few feet away from my sisters, whose collective mouths were often literally hanging open during the performance.
I've written another play, dashed off in 48 hours, that's like a crazy doodle from an unfettered id, and my daughter Rosie started to read it before putting it down, disturbed: "How does Daddy KNOW these things?" she asked Sharon.
Lots to worry about whenever one sits down to write, right?
So what's to worry about NO NO BOY?
A lot of people have held the film rights at one point or another and many have thrown up their hands: It's very much a novel and as such, it resists adaptation. There are some factual problems, some that cut to the very core of the main character's dilemma (probably unknown to John Okada), that have to be fixed and corrected in a way that doesn't feel like so much exposition, but the most worrisome aspect of this adaptation is the fact that the novel has had such an impact on so many people - the raw anger and despair contained within is so different from most Nikkei literature, as are its many damaged characters. More than one person has told me that the book changed them in some measurable fashion, and I feel the same way about it - I was a different person after I read it than I was before. Everyone has had the experience of seeing an adaptation of a beloved book only to be outraged by how badly it got screwed up. Greater minds than mine have already grappled with this seminal novel, so what makes me think I can do it justice?
Many writers have said that the only reason to write is because one has to. And that's how I feel about NO NO BOY. I was shocked some years back when my father, as part of the Seattle Nisei Veterans, participated in a protest against a JACL proposal to apologize to the No No boys: He was angry; he felt that the Sanseis were turning them into heroes when he and many of his veteran friends felt that the draft resistors and the No No boys had, in fact, undermined the sacrifices made by their fallen comrades. I argued that I felt that ALL of the responses that the Nisei had to their injustice contributed to the better lives that we had growing up - the fact that they took different paths and were in opposition to each other ultimately did not matter in the end: The veterans proved their loyalty and by extension, the loyalty of all Japanese Americans, while the draft resistors and No No boys helped spotlight the fact that the Japanese Americans had gotten a seriously raw deal, one worth risking prison and ostracism for. Our conversation ended in anger, though a short time later, my father, in a rare reversal for him, said that after thinking about it, he agreed that ultimately, everyone who followed their conscience helped to undo the injustice done to them all.
In re-examining John Okada's NO NO BOY, I think he really captured that maelstrom of feeling and that is what I've tried to focus on in this adaptation. These were young people who had all just undergone gutwrenching and head-spinning experiences and Okada captures them as they try to put their lives back together when they still don't quite know how. The community is split and though some people are moving forward, others are not. It's my hope that our play will help to shine a light on that time and provide a larger perspective for everyone who sees it. It's also my hope that the play will bring new readers to the original book and remind other readers why that book so moved them in the first place.
I'll wait to worry about what people think on Opening Night when it'll be too late to do anything about it.