Sunday, October 4, 2009

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.

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