‘Mission’ Accomplished? Not Yet, but Closer : Theater: Lane Nishikawa, star of a one-man show about diversity, says mainstream representation of Asian Americans is better than it was.
The most satisfying achievement for actor Lane Nishikawa came in 1991, when a televised version of his one-man show, “I’m on a Mission From Buddha,” aired nationally on PBS.
“I’m very proud of that,” Nishikawa said by telephone from his home in Oakland. “It gave me the chance to get my message about what it’s like growing up Asian American to a very large group of people.”
Since then, Nishikawa has continued doing “Buddha” around the country, from colleges to small theaters to bigger venues. He’ll be at UC Irvine on Wednesday for a single performance.
“Buddha,” described by critics as funny and poignant, is a pastiche of vignettes allowing Nishikawa to embody several Asian American characters. Among others, there’s a stand-up comic, a prodigal son returning to the old country, a World War II combat veteran paying respects to his comrades at a cemetery, a “corporate Samurai” and a rapper.
Through them, Nishikawa said, he tries to flesh out perceptions of Asian Americans that, for the most part, have been shaped by persistent stereotyping over the years.
“Much of the time, we’re still looked at as foreigners, despite being here for four or five generations,” said Nishikawa, 40. “This gives an overview of our experiences, how varied they are.
“Really, I want Asian Americans to look at ourselves, to be proud of our heritage. For non-Asians, I just want to inform. . . . Of course, I hope everybody is entertained along the way.”
Nishikawa began working on “Buddha” in the late ‘80s, following the success of his first ethnocentric one-man show, “Life in the Fast Lane.” At the time, Nishikawa had been with San Francisco’s Asian American Theater Company for 15 years as an actor, director and writer.
Nishikawa, described by one reviewer as “a Japanese Richard Pryor,” was also motivated to create “Buddha” by the limited roles available to him and other Asian American actors on the stage, in movies and on television.
Although he’s had good parts in a few films, including Wayne Wang’s “Eat a Bowl of Tea” and Steven Okazaki’s “Living on Tokyo Time,” Nishikawa frequently found himself competing for cliched characters such as the “nerdy” computer whiz or serious, lab-bound scientist.
“When I started this, there just wasn’t that much out there available,” he said. “Through the many characterizations (in ‘Buddha’), I wanted to show that we can do more than five lines as a pathologist on TV.”
Since then, Nishikawa said, he has seen enough improvement for optimism. Such TV shows as ABC’s “All-American Girl” and the syndicated “Vanishing Son,” although flawed, indicate that the industry is seeing Asian Americans as mainstream, Nishikawa said.
“All-American Girl” follows the sitcom travails of a Korean American Princess, played by comedian Margaret Cho, and “Vanishing Son” is an action-adventure series starring Russell Wong as a hunky Asian hero. Both could benefit from better writing, he said, but Nishikawa added that he’s still impressed.
“Just look at the title (for ‘All-American Girl’), that says something about Asians being a part of our society,” he said. “It’s a breakthrough. The networks are beginning to pay attention.”
Nishikawa’s own moment in the TV spotlight came during “Buddha’s” well-received run at the Asian American Theater in San Francisco. Barbara Gee, a five-time Emmy-award winning public-television producer, saw the show and suggested that it be filmed and offered to PBS’ affiliate stations. The collaboration turned romantic--Nishikawa and Gee have married.
Nishikawa estimates that millions have seen the televised version (broadcast three times since 1991), but he still believes his message is best delivered live. And while “Buddha” may be, at heart, a serious piece, Nishikawa tries to use humor and vivid acting to draw in people.
“I don’t want this to be a lesson; it’s really more about irony,” he said. “It has to be funny; I mean, the situations I go through can be pretty bizarre, and I use a lot of storytelling.
“I try to get everybody to enter my world real quickly. I think the audience starts to see that it’s a person going through a struggle, (and) with each performance piece, the exchange just keeps growing.”
To accomplish that, Nishikawa said, he strives for the audience--even non-Asians--to identify with the characters. That connection builds on shared experiences.
“Like the (World War II) veteran in ‘Buddha,’ everybody has had a relative that’s been affected by war in some way,” Nishikawa said. “Then there’s the stand-up. Everybody’s seen comics working hard to make them laugh. It’s all familiar, (and) it’s all about us.”
* “I’m on a Mission From Buddha,” Lane Nishikawa’s one-man show, will be staged Wednesday at UC Irvine’s Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus Drive and Bridge Road, Irvine. 8 p.m. $7, general; $2, students, and $5, faculty and staff. (714) 824-5588 and (714) 824-5000.