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Questions Continue Over Taper’s ‘Sansei’; ‘Stand-Up’ Latest Contender for Main Stage

Examine the credits for “Sansei” at the Mark Taper Forum.

It was “created and performed by” Hiroshima, the band that is its subject. It was “developed and directed by” Robert Egan. The dramaturg was Brian Kulick.

But no one wrote it.

“Sansei” was drawn from taped reminiscences by four members of Hiroshima. The raw material was edited into a script, a collaboration between the members of the band and Egan.

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As the first Asian-American project to appear in a Mark Taper Forum mainstage season, “Sansei” is the subject of much comment among the Asian-American theatrical community. One question that has arisen: Why wasn’t a writer hired to tie together the band members’ stories into a real play?

“It was entertaining, but there could have been much more meat to it, more insight, more of a structure,” said actress and former television producer/host Sumi Haru. Rattling off a list of seven Asian-American writers, she said, “They know how to put a play together. I wonder if they were asked.”

“ ‘Sansei’ is not a play; it’s more of a concert piece,” said Mako, former director of East-West Players. “Each member of the band had something to say, but it was told as opposed to shown. It lacked conflict.” The Taper “deserves a little pat on the back for doing something” about Asian-Americans, he added, “but I wish it had been a lot stronger, more pertinent. The language wasn’t heightened. Obviously they (the members of Hiroshima) are not playwrights.”

Jude Narita, whose “Coming Into Passion/Song for a Sansei” won a best play award Monday from the Assn. of Asian/Pacific American Artists, acknowledged that she “was quite moved to see Asians on stage (in ‘Sansei’). It was a wonderful concert.” She appreciated that the Taper supported “Sansei” “to the point of putting it into the big house” (main stage).

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However, Narita pointed to the contrast between the “crafted” quality of Hiroshima’s music and “the casualness of the language” in “Sansei.” “Writing for the theater is as demanding as writing a song and deserves as much respect,” she continued. “You have to give up your commitment to the actual spoken word (from the taped interviews) and springboard off the thoughts. By remaining so true to the exact words, they missed the universal.”

“ ‘Sansei’ is an entertaining and energetic endeavor,” wrote critic John Saito Jr. in the Japanese-English newspaper Rafu Shimpo. But he didn’t find enough “fiber in the plot.”

Not everyone missed the presence of a writer. “I don’t see how a writer could have been more sensitive, more aware,” said Dolores Wong, president of Asian American Friends of Center Theatre Group, which raised approximately $50,000 for “Sansei” at a benefit. She admitted “a certain amount of anxiety selling tickets for a performance for which we hadn’t even seen a script.” But she’s now “very proud” of “Sansei,” calling it “very honest, fair, authentic.”

Taper artistic director/producer Gordon Davidson said the decision not to use a writer was the band’s--and he respected it. “When we decided it would be their story (an earlier idea was for Hiroshima to provide music for another story), they wanted to tell it in their own words. It was a delicate experience. I knew it would yield certain results and certain problems. Clearly it lacks a writer’s ability to take that material and transform it. But what I’ve got in return is a certain honesty and simplicity.”

Davidson added that “we weren’t making a play. We were making something new.” However, he also said, “the logical next step would be to take that material and see whether one could marry it with a writer. We’ll play it, listen to it and talk about how we can turn the documentary material into a more artful form without losing the honesty.”

Asked whether this process should have been completed before putting “Sansei” on the main stage, Davidson replied: “I’ve got to be able to experiment on the main stage. There’s no way to do new work if you look at it as finished. Almost all the work you do in theater is work in process.” Besides, he added, a smaller stage hardly could have accommodated the band with all of its instruments and equipment.

Hiroshima leader Dan Kuramoto agreed that “if there is another life for ‘Sansei,’ we may consider (hiring a writer) then.” And he recalled that at one point in the development of the play, director Egan had furnished “a list of writers, if we wanted to do that.”

But “the veracity of the show had a raw appeal that (Egan) liked,” added Kuramoto. At Egan’s suggestion, Kuramoto read some of Studs Terkel’s oral histories and used them as an inspiration.

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Kuramoto himself has written plays. He studied the craft at San Francisco State, he said, and a Bay Area company wanted to perform one of his plays when he was only 18 years old. But he withdrew it, fearing that it wasn’t ready yet.

Now 41, he’s no longer willing to wait for perfection. “In theater, everyone waits until it’s too late,” he said. “It’s important to do it while the issues are still boiling.” Also, given the band’s touring schedule, “we don’t know when we’ll have another chance to do it.”

He conceded that “a lot of refining needs to go into it. But I don’t know of any piece that couldn’t stand a bit of touching up. I’ve seen many shows and wondered what they were doing in front of a paying audience.”

For Kuramoto, “how successful it is isn’t as important as the fact that we’re moving in a direction that includes (Asian-Americans) above the Equity Waiver level. Success is doing what you believe in. Hopefully there will be much better pieces than ours, but we have to start somewhere.”

Veteran actor Sab Shimono agreed: “It could have been better, but at least it’s there. I hope the Taper will bring in Asian writers soon, but at least they used Asian actors. They could have used Joel Grey to play Dan Kuramoto.”

LATE CUES: Some Taper main stage offerings do ascend from the lower rungs of the Taper ladder. The latest candidate for such a move is “Stand-Up Tragedy,” now playing the Taper Too and originally developed at the Taper Lab last fall. Negotiations are under way to take it to the main stage, said a Taper representative.

Meanwhile, Steven Banks is taking his “Home Entertainment Center” from the Pasadena Playhouse’s Balcony Theatre to the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills for an April 13 opening. Susan Dietz, the Playhouse’s artistic director, is producing the venture (without Playhouse participation).

“The Unsinkable Molly Brown” is so unsinkable that it established a Long Beach Civic Light Opera record for gross sales ($683,000 and counting) 45 days before its opening on May 6. . . . “At Wit’s End " has extended its run at the Coronet through April 30. “Les Miserables” has added three more weeks; it will now play through July 23.

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Bring a non-perishable food or household item to the Doolittle Theatre box office and you’ll get two tickets for the price of one for the Saturday 8 p.m. preview of Tom Stoppard’s “Hapgood.” All items will be donated to the “Necessities of Life” program of AIDS Project Los Angeles. . . . George Schaefer and Martin Tahse have organized a memorial gathering honoring actor Maurice Evans, who died March 12. It’s at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Globe Playhouse, 1107 N. Kings Road.


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