Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Reaching Across Time and Space

Some projects are just bigger than the people working on them and this is certainly one of them.  The book has been a marker in many people's lives and it shouldn't be a surprise that any project connected to it would touch various people's lives across time and space, but there have been moments that have startled me: 

One was "meeting" an Egyptian woman online who contacted us because she was doing her Masters thesis in Cairo on No-No Boy.  She was reaching out for information and conversation about the play and how it differed from the book; I sent her a copy of the script and asked her how and why she was compelled to do her thesis on a fairly obscure book about a fairly obscure (certainly in a global sense) subject, and she said she was moved by his search for justice and his questions about identity, things that touched her as an Egyptian woman scholar.  I mentioned that in the aftermath of 9/11, Japanese Americans were among the first to speak out against racial profiling and the scapegoating of Muslims and Arab Americans; she was aware of that as well and said maybe that figured into whatever impulse she had to pick up the book at the American University in Cairo.

Another was meeting a Japanese national, a journalist, and his colleague, a Professor of Asian American Studies at Kanda University in Tokyo.  Who'd'a thunk there was any such thing as an Asian American Studies program in JAPAN?  They had heard of our project through Frank Abe, who had done a couple of documentaries, including CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION (about the Heart Mountain Resisters) and IN SEARCH OF NO-NO BOY, an educational short about John Okada and the real-life basis for the story and some of the characters in the book.  He was gracious enough to let us post his study guide on our website on our For Educators page.  They flew from Tokyo to Los Angeles JUST TO SEE THE PLAY.  Can you believe that?  The journalist told me he'd been working on researching a book about John Okada but was beginning to think maybe he'd have to turn it into a work of fiction because he hasn't been able to find out enough to write a detailed non-fiction book about him - too many holes in the narrative because Okada died so young (at 49 in the early 70s).  I asked him what drew him to the book, and he said he'd found an old copy in a used bookstore in Tokyo and he was drawn to the cover - a sort of watercolor illustration of Mama looking through the dirty window of their grocery store that looked out onto a city street.  It was the anti-war sentiment that first struck him, and like the Egyptian scholar, the desire for justice denied, and surprisingly enough...identity.  He's about my age, and he says that his generation has felt a sort of questioning about identity having been raised after the war, and the next generation even more so wonders who they are, really.

There have been connections across time, as well:  While researching the play, I came across David Mura's FAMOUS SUICIDES OF THE JAPANESE EMPIRE in which a Sansei looks for the truth about his father, a No-No Boy who eventually committed suicide after years of depression.  I was so struck by some of the passages, I looked up his contact info and found him on Facebook and friended him there. 

One of his FB friends is/was Garrett Hongo, a Sansei poet who was a director at what was then the Asian Exclusion Act in the mid-1970s - Garrett had directed me in a production of Momoko Iko's THE GOLD WATCH, a production which awakened and cemented a life-long love for Asian American theater in me.  I friended Garrett after not having seen him in well over thirty years and he almost came to our play before a death in the family pulled him away.  When he apologized to me, I realized that HE was the one who told me in 1977 that I HAD to read this book, that it was shocking that I hadn't already and he was going to kick my ass if I didn't.

There are other small bits of synchronicity and tangential connections, but here's one final one:  On Sunday, several members of the Okada family came from all over the country to see the show.  Roy Okada, John's brother, asked me, "Were you originally from Seattle?"  Yes.  "Was your father an engineer at Boeing?"  Oh my God, yes.  "I knew him!  We were friends!"  Jane Okada (I'm not sure if she was Roy's wife or sister-in-law) said, "Oh, yes.  I know your mother.  I just saw her two weeks ago.  She looks GOOD." 

I had no idea.

If you believe in signs (I do), then maybe this was all meant to be.  Either that, or Asian America is really just a small town and there's really only one or two degrees of separation from us all.  But then, how do you explain Egypt and Japan?  Maybe it's just the power of John Okada's book, a book he wrote from his heart, a book that was written way ahead of its time, but a book that is proving to be timeless and perhaps without boundaries.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Happy Moments and Hate Mail

First off, sorry I haven't kept up the blog AT ALL, but things have been far more hectic this time around than they were for INNOCENT WHEN YOU DREAM - maybe having a cast double the size of Innocent and a variety of replacements and minor fires to put out, combined with the happy problem of sold out houses has had something to do with it - plus (perhaps) being a couple of years older.  I meant to blog last week, since it was our halfway point, but I was behind at work because of a mysterious fainting spell, and before that, I meant to blog after our Opening Night, but I pretty much felt like someone had hit me over the head with an Acme anvil after we opened, so there are my excuses. 

It's also been a roller-coaster ride, with yesterday being the sharpest example:  On the one hand, we've been having great houses and great responses, like yesterday's matinee, in which many of the Okada family came, including John Okada's brother, his sister-in-law, and assorted nieces, nephews, and in-laws.  They were so gracious and amongst the sweetest people one could ever meet, and I'm incredibly grateful that they enjoyed the production.  On the other hand, someone I know from the Bay Area came to see the play, wrote to Frank Chin about it, and I got my first piece of hate mail...from Frank Chin.  It wasn't EXACTLY addressed to me, it was actually an email blast to numerous Asian American academics, activists, journalists, and writers, calling me "a White Racist", "an apologist for the JACL" (which isn't mentioned in either the book or the play), and a "gullible amateur" for having the gall to make changes in the adaptation from the book to the stage. 

We went out to dinner tonight and ran into some neighbors who saw the play and we talked about it; I mentioned the hate mail, and our neighbor cheered me up immensely, saying:  "That's how you know you're on the money - when you piss someone off."

Monday, April 5, 2010

Added Show 7pm Sunday, April 11th


Due to overwhelming popular demand, we are adding an evening show this Sunday, April 11th at 7pm. Our actors and crew have been working their collective tailbones off, going far above and beyond the call of duty to get this play up and keep it up through sold-out houses, understudy rehearsals, put-in rehearsals, and the Miles has been kind enough to open up early and stay open late to accommodate our production, and we figure the best way to pay them back is to...add another show!

Seriously, besides giving our audience one more chance to see our play (we close on April 18th and we CAN NOT extend), we have added this show as a benefit for the actors and our crew. A portion is going towards the extra rental and staffing for the Miles, and all the rest of it is going to our actors and our crew. Come out and support your local theater and your local artists. If you’ve already seen the play, come see it again – there’s a chance you’ll see a different cast than you already saw since I think we’ve had slight variations in the cast for every performance so far! If you’ve already seen the play and you can’t make it on Sunday, April 11th, please tell your friends, some of whom haven’t been able to make it to our sold-out performances. And if you HAVEN’T seen it at all...we are getting close to selling out the rest of the run, so this might be your last chance at tickets.

This is a beautiful production with a wonderful cast and an amazing group of people, onstage and off, and this is our chance to thank them all.

Hope to see you at the Miles Memorial Playhouse at 7pm Sunday, April 11th!

Asia Pacific Arts Article by Ada Tseng


Answers in War: interview with the cast and crew of No-No Boy

The stage adaptation of John Okada's No-No Boy, written by Ken Narasaki and directed by Alberto Isaac, plays in Santa Monica, California from March 26 to April 18.

by Ada Tseng
Date Published: 04/02/02

Over the years, there has been so much interest in adapting the 1957 landmark Japanese American novel No-No Boy into a film, that author John Okada's widow was sick of being approached about it.

"We actually tried to get the rights ten years ago," says Ken Narasaki, writer of the 2010 No-No Boy stage adapation. "But his widow was sort of fed up: 'You guys keep calling and bothering me, and you never do anything! Just leave me alone!'" Narasaki laughs at the memory, holding his hands up in mock surrender. "We're just trying to make a play! Sorry!"

Eight years later in 2008, after Narasaki and their artistic team (which include Sharon Omi, Alberto Isaac, Emily Kuroda, and others) had completed a successful run of their play Innocent When You Dream, Narasaki and Omi decided to try again. By that time, the University of Washington Press owned the rights to No-No Boy.

"We said, 'We don't want the film rights. We just want the stage rights,'" says Narasaki. "And they said, 'Oh, no one's ever asked us for that before. How about $1000?''" Narasaki laughs. "And we said, 'How about less?' You know, cause we're a non-profit, mom-and-pop organization. So they ended up giving it to us for about a dollar."

That was the beginning of a two year journey to get No-No Boy onto the stage.

The term "no-no boy" refers to the loyalty oath that was given to Japanese Americans in the internment camps during World War II. Interned Japanese Americans were asked two questions: whether they were willing to serve in the US armed forces and whether they swore unqualified allegiance to the US during wartime. The "no-no boys" were the ones who answered "No" to both questions, angry that the US government expected them to fight on behalf of a country that had stripped their entire community of their constitutional rights. Most of the No-No Boys were moved to Tule Lake, where they were segregated for the rest of the war.

This stance caused a rift between the No-No Boys/draft resisters and the Japanese Americans veterans who believed answering "No" to these questions and refusing to fight was the cowardly thing to do -- that it gave the US government more reason to distrust their community.

"The veteran side -- the acclaim of the [all-Japanese American] 442 [Infantry Regiment] -- is more often told," actor Chris Tashima (Eto, Jun) explains, "Whereas, the No-Nos were shamed into silence. We didn't really get a chance to hear much about them, which is why the novel is so progressive and amazing, especially for its time."

Naraski's play starts where Okada's book begins: it's 1946, and the main character Ichiro is returning to his hometown of Seattle. He had just come from prison where he was sent for refusing to sign up for the draft. Ichiro is filled with self-loathing and doubt over the decisions he's made, and he's antagonized by many of his peers, including his little brother Taro, who consider him a traitor. Later, he's reunited with his friends Freddie, one a No-No Boy who just wants to drown his troubles in sex and booze, and Kenji, a veteran who has made peace with their differences. Kenji introduces him to Emi, a side character in Okada's novel who has been brought to the forefront of Narasaki's play. Emi becomes the only person who can provide Ichiro hope for redemption.

The No-No Boy producers assembled a talented group of Japanese American actors to fill these roles: Robert Wu as Ichiro, Keiko Agena as Emi, Sab Shimono as Pa, Sharon Omi as Ma, Jared Asato as Taro, John Miyasaki as Ralphie, Greg Watanabe as Kenji, Chris Tashima as Eto and Jun, and Emily Kuroda in various roles.

"One of the things I love about John Okada's book is that there's a whole spectrum of characters that represent all kinds of different individual reactions to what happened during the war," says Narasaki, "The characters are so vital, so alive. They're jumping out of their skin, they're so alive, and I loved them for that. So much Asian American literature is about how much we repress -- and that's there in the book too -- but these guys are live wires, so hungry to latch onto something that makes sense to them. It's this hunger for a life which I think is the reason that so many people fall in love with this book."

However, when No-No Boy was first published, both sides -- the veterans and resisters -- hated the book equally. Narasaki takes this as a sign that Okada got it right.

"The vets believed that he was trying to make heroes out of the No-No Boys," says Narasaki. "And the No-No Boys and the draft resisters get pissed at the book, because they say, 'Why are these people are so filled with self loathing? I'm proud of what I did!'

"But if you look at the book," Narasaki continues, "it's neither of those things. I think one of the things that [director] Alberto's been doing with this play and what the actors have been able to bring out -- how complicated that world really was."

"You have to remember that this was World War II," says Tashima. "Everybody was behind the war and patriotic. To even think about resisting or refusing to serve was unheard of -- let alone from a Japanese American and someone who was in camp. I cannot begin to guess the amount of pressure you'd face, especially being 17-18 years old. But these guys said, 'Wait a minute, this isn't right.'"

"My grandfather was in Manzanar," says actor John Miyasaki (Freddie), "so when I first heard about the 442 when I was really young, around 7 or 10, I asked him, 'How come you weren't in the 442? And my grandfather said, 'There's no way I'd be in the 442. There's no way I'd fight for a country who took everything away from us. And he looked at me and smiled, kind of like 'How could you ask me that question?' And I really never understood. I still don't know if I understand, but I'm hoping to find some of those answers for myself."

"I grew up in Hawaii," says actor Jared Asato (Taro), "and all the stories were from my grandpa and the people who had gone to war -- their perspective. So for me, to learn about all these other things that had happened was very eye-opening."

Adapting the novel into a play had many challenges: juggling multiple storylines, deciding which characters to focus on, moving in and out of multiple places, and getting out of Ichiro's head, where much of the book takes place.

"To be honest, when I read the book, I thought, 'This will be tough to put on the stage,'" says actor Robert Wu (Ichiro). "I couldn't see it initially, but they're doing some amazing things, working with the set designer [Alan E. Muraoka] to create the different environments. I'm impressed with how it's come together."

"Because there are so many locations, the set will be very simple and representational, but big," says Narasaki. "A lot of the worlds that we're going to create are going to be through sound and light. We're going to cover a lot of space, and the design element is going to be very important."

It was also important to maintain a balance: taking some creative liberties with the script in order to make the story more stage-worthy, while still maintaining the spirit of the original novel.

"Another nice thing that's in the play is the way Ken inserted the Momotaro story," says actor Keiko Agena (Emi). In the Japanese fairy tale, Momotaro the Peach Boy meets a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, and they all have to work together in order to defeat the demons. The story is mentioned in Okada's book, but Narasaki threaded it throughout the entire play to act as a metaphor for Ichiro's psychological journey.

Miyasaki agrees, "It's really is the Goldilocks, the Jack and the Beanstalk of our culture. Almost every JA [Japanese American] kid knows that story, and I was really touched by that."

"There's a million different versions of the story," says Narasaki, "but there's one version where, when Momotaro is about to leave on his journey, he tells his parents, 'Thank you for raising me.' And the mother says, 'A parent's duty is to the child, the child's duty is to the parents.' And this is another thing that comes up in this play a lot: what are these duties and how far do you have to take them? There were just so many things about the story that was perfect for the play."

For the actors, one of the biggest challenges was re-creating a time period that was so drastically different than anything they had experienced themselves.

"A lot of us have relatives that are of that period or of that experience," says Miyasaki, "but trying to be in that late 40s, early 50s period -- the language, the dress, and even the interactions are so different. As an Asian American, you hardly get to go out for a '40s play or a period piece, period. It's exciting, but it's very challenging."

Tashima, a writer/director himself who has spent a lot of time looking at this history for other projects, was instrumental in helping the actors get into character.

"It's nice because there is so much material for us to draw from," Tashima says, "Documentary films, books, photographs. There's a lot of interviews of these guys. Some of them go back 20 years, so they're in their 60s, 70s, 80s by now, but at least you can get a sense of their personality, what they had inside, what they were fighting for."

Although the No-No Boy cast and crew seem to be having fun (most of them have worked together previously and known each other for years), they are very aware of the enormity of the project they've taken on. They are very aware of the controversy that still surrounds No-No Boy, especially amongst the aging generation of Japanese Americans, some of whom are still not interested in exploring their painful past.

"When we did the last show, Innocent When You Dream, I played the No-No Boy character," says Miyasaki, "We'd have all these people come in, and I didn't know if they were vets, but it felt like they were vets, a lot nisseis that were of that age. After the show, there'd be food and most of the time people would go talk in the lobby, but no one would talk to me because I was that character. Also, [jokes] because I led an alternative lifestyle, but mostly I think it was because I played the No-No Boy character."

"It's a good thing is that there's a lot riding on the play," says Tashima, "because it's such an important work and because these issues remain in our community. They haven't really been addressed, because each side is hesitant, and they're all moving on in their years. So hopefully, it will cause a big stir. The hardest thing will be getting those who need to hear it, into the house to see the play, because right away, they're gonna think, 'I don't want to see a play about No-No Boys. Hell no, I'm not going to go see that.'"

"But there may be one or two that might get dragged into it, or be curious, or be willing to hear," Tashima continues, "And hopefully, they'll come. Maybe curiosity will get the best of them, maybe it's been enough years. I'm hearing very interesting stories, where a vet will say something that you never thought you'd hear them say: just some form of acknowledgement of what the resisters did. And that's my hope. It's such a shame that so many people are taking this to their graves with some form of regret, so here's an opportunity for something to happen."

No-No Boy had its world premiere on March 27, 2010, and it continues at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica until April 18.

For more information, go to their official website and blog. Tickets are selling out, and an extra Sunday night show has been added on April 11th at 7pm, where John Miyasaki will be playing Ichiro and Mike Hagiwara will be playing Freddie.