Serendipitous Discoveries : Playwright Philip K. Gotanda's 'Ballad,' in Costa Mesa, Shares His History


Playwrights discover theater as their calling in all sorts of ways. Philip K. Gotanda may be the only one to become a playwright by way of pottery-making and law school.

Certainly, he's one of the few to volunteer that he's an accidental playwright who never liked or attended theater when growing up and that, even after having had a dozen plays produced in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, he doesn't feel wholly satisfied writing for the theater.

Gotanda, a third-generation Stockton native whose latest play, "Ballad of Yachiyo," opens Friday at South Coast Repertory, also doesn't feel pigeonholed as a Japanese American playwright or an Asian American hyphenate.

"I don't worry about it," he says. "I know I'm an American writer. I do American stories. I am a Japanese American. But these are simply American stories. I don't think Asian American culture or the Japanese American aesthetic is a static story."

The compact, 44-year-old writer is sitting on a bar stool in SCR's cocktail lounge off the lobby. He is sipping from a paper cup of steaming hot water--no lemon. The place is empty. It's late afternoon, and the actors in "Yachiyo"--some of whom have worked with Gotanda for the last 15 years--are rehearsing behind closed doors across the hall. He's on a break.

"What I write about is an alive beast to me," he continues. "I'm alive. Issues that my community experiences are continually evolving. I know it's an alive culture. I don't see it locked in time. The story is alive--and it's the most natural thing that springs out of me."


Gotanda puts his cup on the bar. His face has the thoughtful, ruminative look of an intellectual, though he says he is more affected by emotions than ideas.

"My characters tend to share my history," he adds. "That's not to say I won't write other stories. But I'm enjoying this right now, and I can go as far inside their souls as I want. I like that."

"Ballad of Yachiyo," which is being staged by Sharon Ott, the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory in a major SCR-Berkeley Rep co-production, sticks even closer to home than usual for Gotanda. It is a fictionalized account of a true story that he unearthed about one of his ancestors.

"Yachiyo" combines the tale of a young woman's coming of age with the deeply ingrained traditions, manners, rules and expectations of a Japanese expatriate community living in 1919 on Kauai, where they work on the sugar-cane plantations.

"I don't pretend to be Hawaiian-born," he says. "But I'm trying to tell part of the family's story, and I've worked hard to make it feel authentic. I spent time in Kauai.

"For me, the island is the way it feels on your body. The smells are intoxicating, sweet. It's the smell of rotten fruit, of flowers with huge odors that make you heady. Then there's the humidity, the tropical climate, which I love. It's very sensual. You don't wear a lot of clothes."

The idea for "Yachiyo" took root about eight years ago as a collage of ideas that never quite gelled, he says. About a year ago, on a co-commission from SCR and Berkeley Rep (where "Yachiyo" just had a successful run), he began a draft of the play in a hospital room--hardly a sensual setting.

"My wife, Diane, went in for an operation," he explains. "We don't have kids, so I decided to stay in the hospital with her. They gave me a La-Z-Boy to sleep on. I had my laptop computer, and I just sort of camped out and started writing."

On his second night there, the hospital brought him a desk. "For whatever reason," he recalls, "I was able to come up with the voice of a 16-year-old girl that captured Yachiyo's story."

Though it took Gotanda nearly a decade to find the key to this play, it's not because he suffers from writer's block. Since the late 1970s, he has had a dozen or so plays produced at major regional theaters on both coasts, including the Mark Taper Forum, the Manhattan Theatre Club and Berkeley Rep. Among his plays are "Yankee Dawg You Die," "Day Standing on Its Head," "Fish Head Soup" and "The Wash."

The son of a doctor, Gotanda grew up hoping to become one himself. It was expected, though never explicitly stated, that he would. But he wasn't much good at science. "I would blow things up in the lab," he recalls.

Besides, his first loves were music and baseball. "No theater," he adds. "I have no theater background. I fell into it by accident. I didn't actually care for theater when I was growing up. I saw nothing, read very little. I was out all the time--playing ball, playing in bands. I pingponged around for a long time."

Midway through college at UC Santa Cruz, Gotanda took a break and went off to Tokyo in an exchange program. There, he traded in academic studies for pottery lessons.

"The moment I got off the plane, I fell in love with pottery. It was everywhere. Beautiful pottery like I'd never seen before. Pots for daily life. They're part of the culture. I began to bug people to introduce me to someone who did pottery."

Gotanda found him in a small village. But the potter lived six hours from Tokyo by train and refused to take him as a student apprentice. He had to make three trips in three weeks to change the potter's mind.

"It was a classic situation. He was testing me. It was sort of a game, and we played it out. Finally he said, 'OK. Close up all your business in Tokyo and come back to try out. Then I'll see.' "

Gotanda dropped out of the exchange program and eventually was accepted. "He had to be convinced I was going to stick and not waste his time." Gotanda lived in the village for more than a year and learned to throw pots in the regional Mashiko style.

"If you leave your country and go back to the mother country and stay there long enough," he says, "a lot of rituals and psychological impulses at the core of your being come out. You get a sense of what is from America and what is not.

"Initially you think you can't speak. Then you start to dream in Japanese. You realize, 'God, I'm part of the fabric. What a great feeling: anonymity! Everything around me reinforced me. I was the policeman. I was the newscaster. I was the movie star. I was the professional ballplayer. I was the bum on the street.

"But if you stay longer, you realize you're not Japanese. You're an American. You can live in Japan forever and maybe you could pass. But you'd still be an American."

Gotanda says he came back to California, enrolled again as a premed student at UC Santa Cruz but couldn't hack it and switched to Japanese studies. After graduation, he went on the road as a singer-songwriter.

"I'd be in a little nightclub playing my guitar and singing my heart out about 'my yellow soul.' I played in Santa Barbara, the Bay Area and a bit in Los Angeles. No one paid attention."

Once again he gave up the Bohemian life and went back to school--law school in San Francisco. He got his degree but didn't take the bar exam and turned to playwriting to put his songs to use.

"What happened was I decided I couldn't just write songs. So I wrote a musical. I used a fairy tale, which is a wonderful place to start, because fairy tales have wonderful construction. You just plug in the songs."

Before graduation, Gotanda sent the script and score to the East/West Players in Los Angeles. They took it.

"I knew nothing about theater, and I actively disliked musicals," he says.

But the show, called "The Avocado Kid," went over so well that Gotanda found himself writing another piece for the company. And for the last 10 years he has made a comfortable living from theater--through commissions, royalties and grants, including a Guggenheim.

But even with "Yachiyo" about to go up, Gotanda still wonders about his theatrical calling. "A few years ago I felt I had said everything I had to say," Gotanda recalls. "I was bored. I also felt--and I still feel this--that I'm not just a playwright."

So he turned to film about three years ago. His first effort, "The Kiss"--a 13-minute short in black and white--had a screening at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Gotanda shot a second, 30-minute film, "Drinking Tea," also to be screened there.

"I have this company of people I work with who believe in what I'm doing," Gotanda says. "Obviously we don't have all the bells and whistles. But I love the fact that I can do what I want on my own terms."

When it comes to bells and whistles, however, "Ballad of Yachiyo" has more than most plays, with both SCR and Berkeley Rep behind it. And if the New York producers coming to see the show during its run at SCR like it as much as they did in Berkeley, Gotanda may get a third production of it, next time off-Broadway.

Not bad for an accidental playwright.

* Philip K. Gotanda's "The Ballad of Yachiyo" opens Friday at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Performances Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 11. $17-$38. (714) 957-4033.

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