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EAST WEST’S MAKO MAKES HARFORD AWARD CIRCLE

Twenty years ago, Mako took his place on-stage in East West Players’ debut production of “Rashomon.” In the audience was then-Times stage writer Margaret Harford, “who gave the show a rave,” the actor recalled recently.

“But somehow, I got left out of the review. Someone called her about it and she said that paragraph had gotten lopped off downstairs in editing. So I never knew what she had to say about me. And being a young actor at the time, I took it kind of personally.”

As often happens in theater, the story has a happy ending. On Monday, Mako, 52, will be the recipient of the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Margaret Harford Award, citing the artistic director of East West Players “for releasing Asian-American actors from the limitations of stereotypical roles and for enabling playwrights to provide them more challenging opportunities.”

“Of course, we’ve been fighting against stereotypes from day one at East West,” he explained. “That’s the reason we formed: to combat that, and to show we are capable of more than just fulfilling the stereotypes--waiter, laundryman, gardener, martial artist, villain. So the idea was to create plays that told our stories from our point of view.

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“History is told from their point of view, not ours,” he stressed. “For instance, the most important thing that happened in terms of Japanese-Americans in this country was their internment during World War II. It was never told from our viewpoint. If we were to look for it in a history book, maybe there’s a paragraph; maybe one sentence. But Japanese, Koreans, Chinese--we all have stories to tell.”

He balks at the idea that such dwelling on monoracial experiences results in separationist theater. “Unless our story is told to (other) people, it’s hard for them to understand where we are. I think we have to do that in relation to history, our history in this country. Then it’s not only ours; it becomes your history too. It’s just that in the past--and even today--our side has been overlooked, neglected.”

Over the years, East West has tried to combine that more specific cultural exploration with traditional fare: productions of Shakespeare, Brecht, Chekhov and Ibsen.

“Ninety-nine percent of us are born and raised here,” Mako pointed out, “so sometimes we feel a lot closer to Western than Eastern culture. We do those plays to show that we, too, can accommodate the work, give audiences a chance to see us in untraditional roles.”

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He claims East West is still “in the process of defining” its own individual style: “As material comes in, I have to say, ‘This would be interesting if they incorporate, say, Chinese opera style in some way. Or maybe we should borrow from Kabuki or Noh theater.’ I have to keep myself open, and I can’t be bashful about stealing in terms of style and approach.”

Mako’s own style--of acting and temperament--was evident early on, when he was offered a walk-on role in the New York production of “The World of Suzie Wong.” His duties: pulling Suzie’s rickshaw across the stage. “I said to myself, ‘I studied acting for this ?'--and turned it down.

“Everyone has to make their choices,” he shrugged. “I don’t regret not having done it. In fact, I’m glad. If I’d gotten involved in that, I would’ve had to tour the country--but since I chose to remain in New York, I was able to find Nola (Chilton, the teacher he credits “for the foundation I have now as an actor and director”).

“Because of her, even between acting work, when I’d have to do ‘straight’ jobs to feed myself (cab driver, produce market worker), I’d still maintain that confidence: ‘I can be. I will be.’ It made me enjoy those straight jobs, because I knew they were temporary--and later on, all the things I did in those days gave me a ‘file’ on the various characters I had to work on.”

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