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Hiroshima--Music, Drama in a Taper Play : Japanese-American band explores its ‘Sansei’ world

Dan Kuramoto, leader of the Japanese-American band Hiroshima, interrupted his discussion of the group’s latest project--the play “Sansei,” which begins previews tonight--to have a panic attack.

“We’re out of our territory,” said Kuramoto, 41, looking frazzled after rushing crosstown to this restaurant interview following a play rehearsal. “We’re musicians. And we’re about to open at the Mark Taper Forum in a play? Sometimes I wonder what the hell we’re doing.”

Hiroshima’s domain is instrumental jazz. Formed in 1975, Hiroshima, which records for Epic Records, is one of the few Asian-American bands in the American music industry--jazz or otherwise--and the most prominent.

So why stray from their turf?

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“This project was interesting and different,” said Kuramoto, who had worked with the Taper a decade ago as the musical arranger for “Zoot Suit.” “It was an opportunity to deal with issues regarding our heritage. A play is a hip thing.

“Man, this could be a joke,” said Kuramoto, who plays saxophones, flutes, keyboards and synthesizers. “People might think it’s stupid.”

Or maybe not.

For one thing, the play is a milestone. Noted Gordon Davidson, the Taper’s artistic director/producer: “This play is the biggest production about Asian-Americans to be developed by the Taper and presented on our main stage. This is an important work. We’ve wanted to do a play exploring the Japanese-American experience.”

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But what is it about “Sansei” that made the Taper take the gamble on an Asian-American production? Davidson acknowledged that the band’s reputation in itself is an asset for ticket sales, making it much less of a risk than would be a play by an unknown Asian-American playwright. But Davidson feels the Taper’s regular audience also will respond to “Sansei.” “For this show we expect to attract our normal subscribers and an Asian-American audience too,” he said. “But we’ll also get some people who’re attracted by Hiroshima--just because they’re a popular band.”

“Sansei,” which means third-generation Japanese-American, probes the lives of the four members of Hiroshima, which also includes koto player June Kuramoto (Dan’s ex-wife), percussionist Johnny Mori and drummer Danny Yamamoto. Newest member, singer Machun, isn’t part of the main body of the piece.

“The play explains where we are or how we got here,” Kuramoto said. “But it’s not just about us. It deals with issues that haunt all Sansei. How much of our culture do we hang on to? How do people from one culture survive in another culture? I’m part of a lot of cultures.”

Kuramoto is a cool, hip dude who can sling the latest slang with the best of them. His comments are often peppered with four-letter words. That street-corner persona reflects the fact that he and the other band members grew up in predominantly black, lower-middle class parts of Los Angeles.

The play, though, is not set in their old neighborhoods. The setting is a typical Hiroshima show. While the band is playing, autobiographical sketches are woven in and out of the musical performances. Some of the music is from their albums and some was written specifically for this production.

While the band members play, other performers do the acting--mainly monologues. They are Marc Hayashi (Kuramoto), Nelson Mashita (Yamamoto), Lane Nishikawa (Mori) and Natsuko Ohama (June). The piece, Kuramoto said, is about one-quarter straight music--like a concert.

“The way the play is structured, each member’s thoughts are amplified during the performance,” Kuramoto explained. “Actors act out what’s going through our minds while we’re playing. We’re all thinking about our lives as we’re playing. Once those thoughts go by, the band member goes back to playing. Then the focus shifts to another member.”

The script was developed out of two years of taped interviews, reminiscent of the process used for “A Chorus Line” when it was developed. The four members were grilled by director Robert Egan, 38, who distilled that information and, with their help, fashioned a play. Both Egan and the group are the credited writers.

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“We spilled our guts,” Kuramoto said.

“We deal with the cultural crises that Japanese-Americans go through. Like me. When I was in college, I wanted to fit in--to the point of thinking I should minimize my own heritage.

“It was a catharsis in many ways. We learned all sorts of stuff about each other. We deal with things like white racism and racism of Asians against other Asians.”

“Sansei” also digs into the personal feelings of the members of Hiroshima, reactions to traumas such as the Kuramotos’ divorce in the early ‘80s and the suicide of band member Richard Matthews, who hung himself in 1983.

In a separate interview, director and co-writer Egan explained the origin of “Sansei” in a Taper workshop three years ago:

“A staff director, Peter Brosius, had the idea to do a piece about Asian-Americans, so he contacted the band to do the music. Gradually we decided to focus on the band and do a piece about them that was developed in another workshop. I was fascinated by the fact that they used classical Japanese instruments with modern jazz techniques. They’re synthesizing various musical styles and they’re also synthesizing two cultures. I’d always wanted to collaborate with people from the music world on a theater piece. This was a perfect opportunity.”

Egan also believes the production is a milestone for the Taper, which has been involved with a few smaller-scale Asian-American projects (Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Song for a Nisei Fisherman,” Jude Narita’s “Coming Into Passion,” among others). “But this is the first major Asian-American piece developed in-house,” he noted.

“This was done because it was a quality project, not because of any pressure,” director Egan insisted.

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But the Asian-American theater community would generally agree that “Sansei” is the exception. The community is small and not very vocal, but nevertheless is not happy about getting so little attention from the major theaters.

“There’s been some resentment, but there haven’t been any real campaigns or protests, nothing beyond discussions with some of the major theater people,” said actress-director Nobu McCarthy, who has been active with East West Players and is directing “Webster Street Blues” there, a play about Sansei that opens Wednesday.

The problem with most plays about Asian-Americans, she pointed out, is that they’re based on prevailing fantasies and stereotypes. “The biggest plays, like ‘Pacific Overtures,’ are entertainments that perpetuate the fantasies,” she said. “Audiences aren’t informed about Asian-American culture. Plays can help--but only plays that are about our lives as they really are.”

In the last two years Hiroshima finally emerged as major force in both the jazz and New Age markets. Its “Go” album, which topped the Billboard magazine jazz charts for eight weeks over a year ago, sold a respectable 300,000 copies. The band’s new album, “East,” just out last week, promises to be an even bigger hit.

Quite a few things about this band are unusual. One of the most startling is that its audience, Kuramoto has said, is mostly black. Since part of Hiroshima’s musical roots are black, the band is proud of its acceptance by the black community.

Though Hiroshima has no gripes about its audience, it does have complaints about the music industry. For instance, some of the band’s record company experiences, Kuramoto revealed, have been ugly. One of the most controversial aspects of “Sansei” is bound to be the band’s allegations of racism in the record industry.

Kuramoto charged that some companies--particularly those with new acts--don’t want pictures on the cover if the artist isn’t white. “This goes on, believe me,” he said, stressing that none of these accusations were aimed at the group’s label, Epic Records. “The executives talk about marketing and how much easier it is if the picture of the non-white artist isn’t on the cover. I know of this black act on a black label that was told the same thing--that their picture on the cover would somehow inhibit sales.”

Kuramoto said one of the reasons Hiroshima did the play was for the chance to make statements about problems like record-industry racism, which might benefit Asian-Americans and other minorities.

“I’m not a crusader,” he said. “But there’s a lot of things--about Sansei and racism and racial identity that need to be said. We do a good job of saying that stuff too.”


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