Wednesday, March 31, 2010

LA Weekly Review

GO  NO-NO BOY Grief and bitterness are the unspoken but constantly present co-stars of playwright Ken Narasaki's compelling drama, adapted from John Okada's classic Asian-American novel. At the end of World War II, second-generation Japanese-American Seattle teen Ichiro (Robert Wu) is finally released from U.S. prison, where he has served time for refusing to participate in the draft. Ichiro's refusal to join the U.S. Army has nothing to do with cowardice. Rather, his choice is the result of being torn between his beloved American upbringing and his Japanese cultural roots. When he returns home, however, he finds wreckage and bitterness where he once had friends and family. His Japan-loyal mother (Sharon Omi), who drove Ichiro to make his choice, lives in denial and has nearly lost her mind, supported by Ichiro's stoic, sad-faced father (Sab Shimono). Ichiro's former best friend Kenji (Greg Watanabe), despite coming home from the war horribly crippled, is more accepting of his buddy's choice. Assisted by Narasaki's deft dialogue, exchanges that belie the depth of fury and bitterness over the American dream turned sour, the play presents characters whose piercing suffering becomes eloquent. Director Alberto Isaac's deftly subtle production never overplays its emotional hand, opting instead for an understated melancholy that is both elegant and searing. Few dramas have as effectively depicted the sense of being torn between two cultures in a time of war — along with the unique Japanese-American tragedy arising from being simultaneously victorious and defeated. Wu's devastating boy-next-door turn as Ichiro depicts a figure desperately torn between his American upbringing and his Japanese cultural roots — and who discovers that both bring little but sorrow. Other ferociously moving turns are offered by Shimono's pained but undemonstrative father and Omi's brittle, hate-filled mother. Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 18. (800) 838-3006, Timescape Arts Group. (Paul Birchall)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Somebody Mess with Texas

You've all heard about the ultra-right in Texas lobbying for an ultra-right-wing view of history in their textbooks...sounds like a pretty bad idea, right?  Here's an example of how it affects those of us who want some good to come out of the Japanese American internment, namely greater awareness of our precious civil rights:  Texas would like to puncture that idea with some spurs that jingo, jango, jingo.  (from Angry Asian Man -


texas board of education to rewrite japanese internment

Some news from last week that I can't believe is actually happening... In Texas, the Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers' commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light: Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change.

The board, whose members are elected, has influence beyond Texas because the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks. In the digital age, however, that influence has diminished as technological advances have made it possible for publishers to tailor books to individual states.

Among other things, here's the "tailoring" that really got my attention:

Mr. Bradley won approval for an amendment saying students should study "the unintended consequences" of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation. He also won approval for an amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism.

Texas, what is wrong with you? Why do you want to brainwash your kids? Sadly, this clearly illustrates that there are plenty of powerful people out there who would like rewrite the world into place where the wartime incarceration of thousands and thousands of innocent Japanese Americans was justified. This, among many other parts of American history the Board has taken a scalpel to.

I'm sure Michelle Malkin is jumping for joy.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A 24 hour Blazing Hot Deal for Blacklava One Hot Minute Followers!

A 24 hour  Blazing Hot Deal for Blacklava One Hot Minute Followers!

“No-No Boy”
A new play by Ken Narasaki.
Directed by Alberto Isaac
Based on the novel by John Okada.

$16.00 tickets for any available seat!
(regular price: $25.00)

Miles Memorial Playhouse
1130 Lincoln Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90403

March 27 – April 18, 2010
Friday and Saturdays at 8pm
Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3pm
(March 27th, 8pm and April 11th, 3pm sold out)

The cast (in alphabetical order) Keiko Agena, Jared Asato, Michael Hagiwara, Emily Kuroda, John Miyasaki, Sharon Omi, Sab Shimono, Chris Tashima, Greg Watanabe and Robert Wu.

It’s gonna be awesome.

Week Two Down

Actually, we've just begun Week Three, which means we're almost halfway through rehearsal and I think we're in pretty good shape right now, knock wood.  We're already doing run-throughs, which I think is pretty amazing - I've been in shows where the first real run-through was dress rehearsal and maybe one where the first real run-through was the first preview.  It's good for us because this play has so many scenes and locations; this way, we can see how it all hangs together.

It's interesting from a writing standpoint too, because the staging and the evolution of the play requires line changes and cuts that come from pure necessity or whatever the opposite of that is; in other words, sometimes lines are needed for transitions or to cover exits; and in this case, there were a number of brief interstitial lines that I wrote to cover what I thought would be blackout transitions, but Alberto has figured out a way to get from scene to scene with no blackouts, so most of those transitional lines are now gone.  It's brilliant on Alberto's part because it makes the entire play flow better and we have a lot more space than I originally imagined, so we'll be able to do a lot of transitions through light shifts alone.

We have a great cast - something we already knew - but it's always interesting to see how everyone works, and in this case, everyone is incredibly conscientious.  Last week, we were doing some sound recordings, and people were going in one at a time while the rest of the cast waited their turn.  Darlene, our stage manager, said that it felt like study hall - the room was almost dead silent, as everyone was studying their scripts.  A room full of eight or nine actors and no one was talking?  Hard to believe, but that went on for half an hour before rehearsal proper began.

So far, so good - we're using almost every single minute of rehearsal from start to finish, every night, but the time is just FLYING by, which I guess time does when you're having fun.  I love these guys.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More No-No Boys and Girls News

Ken Takemoto has a great profile in the Sunday LA Times (see previous posting) and Keiko Agena, who plays Emi in the play, will be on Castle tonight (Monday, 10pm on ABC).  Of course, she should have her own show starring her, but she doesn't at the moment, which is TV's loss (for the moment) and our gain!

Ken Takemoto

Ken Takemoto has done costumes and props for every show our sort of ad-hoc group has done together.  He's got a collection of things to rival a professional prop shop and between what he has, what he can borrow, and his peerless thrift-store shopping skills, Mr. T is like a one-man costume shop.  He's a terrific artist, a great man, clearly well-loved, and for good reason.  We love having Ken working with us on our plays for all of the above reasons, plus...we just love hanging out with him.  Apparently, the LA Times recognized what a singular human being he is, and thus the story below:,0,4068058.story
Ken Takemoto: East West Players' Mr. Fix-It
The troupe relies on its prop master to provide the perfect piece. Hey, what's in that Dumpster?

To understand why East West Players loves Ken Takemoto, ask about "the duck." The fake fowl -- a Rube Goldbergian contraption he created for a 2008revival of "Pippin" -- shows just how clever, conscientious and cheap the 75-year-old prop master can be.

"Ken has spoiled us," says Tim Dang, producing artistic director of East West, the nation's leading Asian American stage company. "He can find almost anything, and what he can't find he can make himself."

A script doesn't always describe what a prop should look like, he adds, "but Ken knows exactly what is wanted because he really listens to the play and the director. If we need picture frames, he knows what kind of frame the character would have and what period it should be."

Theatrical property departments are responsible for securing and preparing every object the actors handle as well as providing decor items and accessories that help establish a scene's sense of time and place.

"My role is to make a play feel authentic," says Takemoto, whose 65th East West show -- "Cave Quest" -- runs through March 14. Usually, he's happy if his work goes unnoticed: "What's onstage should seem so natural no one knows what I did."

But given the downtown theater's cultural connections, he takes pride in hearing people talk about the accuracy with which he dresses a set. "I like when they say, 'Oh, that looks like my auntie's house!' "

Although prop people rarely get much glory, their ability to beg, borrow or build whatever they can't afford to buy makes a big difference.

"What the audience may think are small things are things we depend on," says "Cave Quest" director Diane Rodriguez, an associate producer and director of new play production for the Center Theatre Group. She notes that Les Thomas' tale -- in which a video game creator visits an American Buddhist nun's Tibetan hideaway -- "is challenging because it takes place in a very small, specific place. The nun has very few, very particular things she carried up or people brought. Ken helped root us in reality by creating a world that we really believe in."

For "Cave Quest," Takemoto tracked down or improvised a number of hard-to-find objects. The nun, for instance, needed a shawl of a certain color and texture that would look good under black light. The costume designer found fabric at a daunting $35 a yard. (The props budget was a few hundred dollars.) The ever-frugal Takemoto hit the thrift circuit: "I got the shawl at Goodwill for $4.95 and I got the senior discount."

"When we saw what he had done," says Rodriguez, "there was this moment of, 'We are so happy you are here!' "

Besides his stagecraft skills, Takemoto is known for his generosity and a joie de vivre undimmed by age. The white-haired Hawaii native is decades older than most of his colleagues at East West, where he has worked as a free-lancer since 1989. "But he's not a stodgy old person," says Meg Imamoto, the company's director of production. "Mr. T is everyone's favorite uncle" -- albeit one who can get a bit feisty.

"Sometimes he's Mr. Grumpy," says actress Emily Kuroda. "But he's got a heart of gold." Takemoto has lent a hand -- once, even his house -- to many a small ensemble and struggling artist. "Someone couldn't find a venue for a play," Kuroda recalls, "and he emptied his bottom floor and let them put it on."

"When I'm working, I can get stressed out," Takemoto admits one recent afternoon as he relaxes between prop-shopping runs at his home, a tidy Craftsman in West Adams. "I just want everything to be right."

As he sits in his living room smiling a grandfatherly smile, it's hard to think of him as a grump -- or to guess he's developed a nice side niche as an actor and dancer. After making his debut as an extra in an '80s-era Stevie Wonder music video, he has been active in TV and movies, playing a variety of what he calls "older Asian man roles" including a martial arts master and a retired kamikaze pilot. He also has appeared in commercials and print ads for products as varied as Oreos and Viagra.

"I like to keep busy," he says. This month, in addition to "Cave Quest," he just finished handling props for Grateful Crane Ensemble's "The Betrayed," which closed last weekend.

Up next are two Santa Monica productions -- he is prop master and costume designer for Ken Narasaki's adaptation of the John Okada novel "No-No Boy," which Timescape Arts Group will open March 27, and is rehearsing a dance piece with choreographer Keith Glassman that premieres April 2-3 at Highways Performance Space.

His hectic schedule may be his way of making up for lost time -- he didn't get involved in theater until he was in his 50s. He grew up in Honolulu, the son of a cement mixer driver from Japan and a Japanese American dressmaker. After graduating with a degree in applied design from the University of Hawaii, he moved to Los Angeles, where he began teaching at Fremont High. Before he retired more than three decades later, he had taught at half a dozen campuses. "My goal was to experience working with kids of all different backgrounds," he says.

In the late '70s, Takemoto started to study modern and Afro-Haitian dance. In 1989, he enrolled in East West's summer conservatory, where he proved to be a natural when it came to props. At summer's end, East West asked him to work on its revival of "Company." "From there," he says, "I kept going."

When he begins a production, he attends readings and meetings with the director and designers. "I see whether things are decorative or are going to be thrown around." Even mundane pieces -- bowls or chopsticks -- must be carefully chosen based on historical accuracy and the play's content and design.

He searches for items in East West's warehouse and a personal stash he accumulated at auctions, on overseas trips and by picking up stuff left at the curb. "We joke that if we throw something away, Mr. T climbs into the Dumpster and takes it home," says Imamoto. He also scours secondhand shops and ethnic markets -- and whips up his own creations.

Not all of Takemoto's gambits pay off. Once he sealed a roast turkey with polyurethane, hoping it would last through a play's entire run. With a week to go, juices started seeping. "It was a mess," he sighs.

He worked as art director for the 1997 Oscar-winning live-action short "Visas and Virtue." He has designed costumes for East West six times, winning two Dramalogue awards, and has appeared in six East West productions, including Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" and Philip Kan Gotanda's "Sisters Matsumoto."

"Ken has a striking look," says Dang. "He has a certain character that comes through in his face and his persona that you don't see a lot."

As he heads into his late 70s, Takemoto, who is single, plans to continue acting. He isn't ready to give up the life of a prop master either. While showing a visitor his home collection of treasures, he happily recounts past prop triumphs -- keeping an ear out for a call about his latest audition.

His favorite story is about the duck that now is part of East West lore. In "Pippin," the hero experiences an epiphany after trying in vain to save a boy's sick pet. Takemoto had to find a bird that could move from actor to actor and then keel over. Robots were expensive. Dolls were clunky. He finally hit upon the idea of mounting a wooden duck he got in Chinatown on a remote-control toy car that he could flip by forcing it to a sudden stop. He covered the creature with "feathers" made from flattened pieces of pie pan he meticulously embossed and colored using chopsticks and ink.
"It looked great and moved just how they wanted," Takemoto says. "And it only cost $10 for the duck and $30 for the car -- and the pie pans were free."

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Steve Sumida

As some of you already know, Asian America is a small town, and there are often only one or two degrees of separation from person to person.  One of the guys who helped discover and republish Okada's NO-NO BOY was Stephen Sumida, the head of the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington.  I was surprised when I returned to the novel a couple of years ago with an eye towards adapting it when I saw his name mentioned in Frank Chin's Afterward in the novel because I had played Steve's son in a 1977 production of Momoko Iko's THE GOLD WATCH.  Still another coincidence and proof of how Asian America is a small town:  Greg Watanabe, the actor playing Kenji, turns out to be Stephen's cousin.  Years ago, Stephen hoped that HE could play Kenji in the movie version of the book - I hope he gets to see Greg, who will be brilliant in the role.

Greg struck up an email correspondence with Stephen about the play and asked if we could include some of his thoughts in this blog - Stephen graciously said we could, so here are a couple of excerpts from his emails to Greg:

"Ted Maneki told me about your being in Ken's play.  That stirs up a lot of thought and memory for me, about Ken and about No-No Boy.  I've just finished teaching the novel to 152 students in one class, 45 in another.  I tell you, even though we'd like to think that teaching and learning would help to resolve conflicts that are comforting for us later generations to resolve, the splits between veterans and No-No Boys, among Nisei, are still there, I think mostly because of ignorance about a lot of things.  (...)  What do you think, in the context of the play--is it better to have been a Yes-Yes Boy who resisted only when your draft notice arrived in the summer of 1944, or to have been a No-No Boy who protested from the start, in response to the 1943 "Loyalty Oath"?  Back in the day when we talked about how good it would be to make a movie of No-No Boy, we'd talk about how I'd be Kenji.  In class, I mimic Kenji's best moment in the novel, when he comes to Ichiro's rescue from Taro's goons pantsing Ichiro in the parking lot.  This scene is Okada having fun.  It's a samurai movie starring the one-legged swordsman.  When I do the scene in class, I take my wooden sword, bokken, or when my wife isn't watching to forbid me to do it, I take a live blade, a katana that goes "swish" when I cut that guy's wrist.  That's a good scene, Greg.  What's your part in Ken's play?"

"You asked if you could share my earlier messages about No-No Boy with Ken.  By all means, please do so.  I'd be more than happy to discuss any of it and more with you and Ken.  Here's one piece that I don't think I told you yet.  About four years ago a student in the big lecture class, all excited, came to me and said, If Ichiro is like Okada's friend the No-No Boy Jim Akutsu, then is Kenji like Okada himself?  If so, what's Okada's handicap, to match Kenji's missing leg?  I don't know why my reply was so quick.  I said, Okada didn't have a tongue.  His tongue was cut out.  I explained that as a Nisei veteran of the Military Intelligence Service, Okada was ordered not to speak of his war experiences for thirty years--silenced until 1975, beyond his death.  He could not write his own war story.  He couldn't even tell his children (...) He chose instead to write not about a war hero, whom few if any could emulate in life once the war was over, but about the lowest one in Nikkei society, a No-No Boy.  If the lowest one can survive, then we all can survive.  So, if Okada gave Kenji something of his own character and concerns, then you have a huge role to play, full of compassion, irony, wit, and an understanding of pain.  I'm now grading papers about the novel, and I see all over again the struggle people have to grasp and articulate some of its most basic truths.  That's why your coming production is still so timely."

"You know, you might tell Ken Narasaki that the current wariness about
distinguishing Resisters from No-No Boys may be a red herring--as usual
with red herrings, one that serves somebody's purpose.  In nearly thirty
years Gail and I have met No-No Boys (who answered No No or, as Soji
writes, refused to answer 27 and 28 at all) whose accounts of how they
were punished are really various.  I don't think the government had the
means or comprehension or whatever to treat them consistently across the
ten concentration camps.  For example:  one was a fourteen-year-old boy
when he was required to answer the 1943 questionnaire, and being a very,
very good boy, he understood that 27 and 28 were false questions, so he
answered No No thinking he was right.  He probably saluted when he wrote
those two final answers in the questionnaire.  This boy was then
segregated from his family and sent to Chicago, his punishment being his
exile and lack of support.  Just a kid.  This man, Yuzuru Takeshita, then
carried the burden of thinking he had done wrong after all, but he didn't
know what.  More than forty years later he heard me speak about the novel
No-No Boy at the U of Michigan.  He stood up and told his story.  The
scholars in the room were struck dumb--I mean, when was the last time a
book come to life for them in the actual body and testimony of somebody in
the room?  Professor Takeshita wept when he talked.  He said that for
forty years he'd thought he had committed some wrong.  And now to hear
about No-No Boy he felt exonerated.  Some years later his wife repeated
some of this, when she said I was the one who had made her husband cry one
night!  Yuzuru Takeshita was a prominent Professor of Public Health, at
UM, at that time.  He had spent his entire career trying to do right, for
everybody, to make up for his unknown wrong.

Another story is of a prominent figure here in Seattle, Tsuguo "Ike"
Ikeda, who stood up in a class I ran especially for Nisei.  We ended by
discussing No-No Boy.  Being of Seattle, the Nisei knew the setting and
even characters.  Ike told everyone that he answered 27 Yes, but he was
puzzled and then bothered by 28:  you know, how can one "forswear
allegiance" to the Japanese Emperor unless one has already sworn
allegiance in the first place?  So, being upright and conscientious, just
getting into draft age, Ike Ikeda answered "No" to 28, he said.  This
makes him a No-No Boy.  Then he said he doesn't understand it, but they
drafted him anyway.  The eyes of the Nisei in the room were spinning.
They said, Ike, we know you for sixty years, and we never knew you're a
No-No Boy!  That ended our course.  It was terrific.  Some of the Nisei,
by the way, couldn't even recall that there had been a questionnaire, and
the veterans were away in the military when the Resisters (who used to be
called "No-No Boys") made their protests.  So much of the hostility is
based on less than hearsay.

As you may know, and I hope Ken knows, an actual model for Ichiro was
Okada's friend, the No-No Boy Jim Hajime Akutsu.  Frank Emi and Frank Abe
say that Akutsu was not a No-No Boy but was a Resister, because Akutsu was
not sent to Tule Lake after he answered No No in 1943.  So, they argue,
Akutsu must have been a Yes Yes Boy, served his draft orders in 1944,
resisted, and charged, tried, and convicted of draft evasion.  But to his
death in 1998 Akutsu (and his surving brother Gene, also a No-No Boy)
insisted that he answered No, because of horrid experiences he, his
brother, and their mother had suffered in camp.  I have a photocopy, from
Jim Akutsu, of his draft order.  It's dated June 10, 1944.  It orders him
to report to he pre-induction physical exam--on May 21, 1944.  Akutsu knew
that this was the other shoe dropping, how they would get him for
answering No a year earlier.  "I was framed," he said.  He was charged,
tried, and convicted of draft evasion.  When he tried to explain the false
order he had been served, the judge said, "Did you or did you not appear
for your physical as ordered?"  "Well, no sir, but you see . . ."  "Did
you or did you not report?  That's the only question that matters to this

For purposes of Ken's play, he's right in thinking that the Resister-No-No
Boy difference is not very important, given the different ways that No-No
Boys were treated.  Maybe to the Resisters theirs is a cleaner case.  They
were Yes-Yes Boys who later resisted the draft.  But were they?  Frank Emi
still talks as if he refused to answer 27 and 28.  You see, there's a
smokescreen hiding the Resisters from clear view, too.

By the way, Greg--the place called Club Oriental in the novel is still
here, on Maynard Alley, in Chinatow, except its name is the Wah Mee Club,
padlocked since February 1983 when three young Chinatown thugs massacred
13 gamblers in the upstairs room.  It's a creepy place.  You want to see
it some day?  A student and I stopped at the doorway the other night.
Down the alley is the parking lot, still, where your Kenji whacked Taro's
goon with his cane, twice.  This is one of the few clubs where Nisei were
welcomed to drink and dance, and maybe gamble, after the war.  This is
where Okada taught his new buddy Jim Akutsu to drink.

I find myself telling you all this because I have to keep these stories
alive--too much even to tell in my classes.  Thanks very much for Soji's
words.  Can you tell me--may I forward his message to my classes?  Soji
and his Camp Dance came to us a few years ago.  The old people--this
includes me--were sentimental about it all with no shame.--Steve

Stephen H. Sumida, Professor