On a lovely day in Southern California, in the parking lot of a Wendy's, Denise Uyehara's grandmother sat behind the wheel of her car, doused the dashboard with gasoline and lit a match.
She and her deceased husband had survived the Japanese internment camps of World War II and had rebuilt their lives. They used to slow dance, late at night, to music from a radio they kept in their grocery store. And now, believing that she had "persevered just enough for this life," she happily ended her time on earth and joined the spirit world.
Uyehara has used her grandmother's story as an element in a one-woman piece called "Headless Turtleneck Relatives: The Tale of Family and a Grandmother's Suicide by Fire" that she will perform tonight at the Huntington Beach Art Center, employing her own poetic language and subtly evocative body language to illuminate its mixture of poignant and joyous moments.
A graduate of UC Irvine who spent her childhood in Tustin and Westminster, Uyehara, 30, has attracted critical notice for her plays and solo performances at Highways in Santa Monica and East West Players in Los Angeles. She has also appeared at such prestigious venues as the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and the Institute for Contemporary Art in London.
Next month, she will team with performance artist Dan Kwong for "Samurai Centerfielder Meets the Mad Kabuki Woman," a piece about relations between the sexes, part of the Mark Taper Forum's Asian Theatre Workshop at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood.
During a recent chat in her cozy studio in Santa Monica's 18th Street Arts Complex, Uyehara struck a visitor as comfortably combining two personas: feisty, independent female artist living and working on the cultural edge, and quiet seeker for the human truths embodied in her family's traditions.
The daughter of two third-generation Japanese-American scientists who were comfortably middle class, Uyehara nevertheless grew up feeling the sting of what she calls "subtle racism."
Once, at a song audition, she was told: "That's beautiful, honey, but you just have to open your eyes a bit wider."
"At the time, you know, you're [young] and you think, 'Oh, OK,' " Uyehara recalled. "It takes you awhile to realize, 'Hey, that was really racist, that was really strange!' "
On the other hand, she said, one of the "more positive experiences" of growing up in Orange County was Little Saigon, where she could see "another group of newer immigrants with great commitment to their community."
Though she choose to attend UCI rather than move away for college--"and Irvine is as 'Orange' as you can get," she added wryly--she found a niche within the Asian-American student groups there and worked on the Asian-American student paper.
Halfway through a biology major inspired by her father's career as a biochemist, she realized her heart really belonged to literature and the arts, especially theater.
In a playwriting class, she wrote a scene for a man and a woman. When the student playing the woman protested a week before the performance that her boyfriend wouldn't let her kiss another man onstage, Uyehara took her place and enjoyed herself immensely.
"That was when I started to realize it might be a good idea to continue performing what I write, because as an Asian-American actress auditioning for roles, I'd only get this many roles," she said, pinching a tiny bit of air between two fingers. "So I started writing monologues and doing different types of experimental theater that really [offered] a lot more freedom in what you could present and who you were."
Five years ago, she made public another facet of her identity: Not only was she what she laughingly calls "third-and-a-half generation" Japanese American (because one of her grandmothers spent half her life in Okinawa and half in the U.S.), but she was also bisexual.
Coming to terms with being neither heterosexual nor strictly lesbian has helped her realize how complex a person's identity can be. Though some of her work--like her taboo-breaking, often nude performances as part of a collective called the Sacred Naked Nature Girls--is directly about issues of gender and sexuality, her overarching theme is "just being able to make sense of who we are."
In "Headless Turtleneck Relatives," she deftly slips in and out of the skins of family members, re-creating her father's karaoke version of "My Way" (with altered lyrics) and cooking ozoni, the special soup her grandmother always made for oshogatsu, the New Year's holiday.
"I remember one day," she said, "when my mother said, 'I think it's time I started making this soup.' That was really profound for me because up until then, my parents were like, 'Oh, yeah, [on the holidays] we have the fried rice and the lasagna and the turkey.' I think she was also saying, 'Someday you're going to make this.'
"You know, sometimes you realize your parents are trying to teach you something without saying it" in so many words. "So in 'Headless Turtleneck Relatives,' parents and grandparents tell you stories because they want to share something with you. In the ritual of making the soup and creating this [New Year's] feast, you are remembering your past. You are embracing your culture just in a simple act."
Uyehara was 25 in 1982 when her grandmother committed suicide. She says that she still feels the older woman's presence "very strongly" and that though she is a nonreligious person, she prays to her grandmother before performing this piece.
"I think it was a long, challenging experience for my family to feel somewhat at peace with what happened," she said. "Part of what helped me in the creation of this piece was to remember . . . what I heard from her about the internment camps and what it was like growing up and the different songs I'd heard her sing."
Uyehara said that after she performed the piece at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library several years ago, an older man in the audience told her: "The love you have for your grandmother is bigger than this room."
* Denise Uyehara performs "Headless Turtleneck Relatives: The Tale of Family and a Grandmother's Suicide by Fire" tonight at 8 at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. $10; $8 students and seniors. (714) 374-1650.