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Prince of Changing Tides

His first name is Prince.

At age 25, he’s the second-youngest playwright ever to receive a full production from the 32-year-old East West Players.

The title of his play isn’t shy: “Big Hunk o’ Burnin’ Love.” Opening July 15, it’s the first nonmusical to play East West’s new, larger home, Little Tokyo’s David Henry Hwang Theatre (which is named after the “M. Butterfly” writer--the youngest East West playwright ever).

With that kind of buildup, it wouldn’t be surprising if Prince Gomolvilas affected as flamboyant a style as, well, the artist formerly known as Prince.

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But Gomolvilas, at least on the surface, seems a long way from “Purple Rain.” He’s genial, thoughtful, quietly witty.

“He looks like this little Thai guy, meek and quiet,” said Paige Kissel, a friend from the playwright’s days at Monrovia High School. However, she added, with his friends “he’s obnoxious and obscene and funny.”

He didn’t choose to be called “Prince.” It was attached to this U.S.-born son of Thai immigrants when he was entering kindergarten in Indianapolis. The teacher couldn’t handle his first name, Khamolpat, or even his nickname Bin. Trying to pronounce the latter, she came up with “Prince,” and it stuck.

“It has been my cross to bear since I was 5,” Gomolvilas said. But he keeps it because “the last name is bad enough. You gotta give people a break.”

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The Western-sounding first name also reflects the spirit of “Big Hunk o’ Burnin’ Love.” It’s an American comedy first, a Thai American comedy second.

The leading character, Winston--an Anglo name nonpareil--is a second-generation Thai American. But his best friend, Nick, is Chinese American, and Nick’s wife, Sylvia--a former love of Winston’s--is white. Winston’s parents speak a few lines of Thai in the play, and they want their son to marry a recently arrived immigrant, but Winston resists.

East West artistic director Tim Dang had been looking for plays from outside the Japanese and Chinese American communities. “The only Thai plays we ever saw were mostly by Caucasian men, and mostly about the sex trade,” Dang said. “We passed. We didn’t want to stereotype people from Thailand as hookers.”

“Big Hunk” was different. “It explored a new culture for us, but it was still universal. It was very accessible,” Dang said. It also addresses concerns of younger Asian Americans, who “are more assimilated.”

“Identity is not the issue any more. We’re just people, living in the ethnic mix. We’re not trying to stick to our own kind.” Dang hopes the play will draw younger audiences to East West.

Winston’s central issue is something Gomolvilas shouldn’t have to worry about for a few years: turning 30. The normal anxiety surrounding the birthday is intensified by Winston’s parents, who tell him of a family curse that befalls single men in his family who turn 30--they spontaneously combust. Hence the title’s “Burnin’.”

No such curse was talked about in Gomolvilas’ real family, said the playwright. But “the idea of a family curse is a metaphor for the ties we feel to our own families and the obligations we feel, which is more so in traditional Asian cultures than in America.”

Still, why is someone who was 22 when he started writing “Big Hunk” so obsessed with turning 30? “One of the few times I don’t procrastinate is in finding things to be depressed about,” Gomolvilas replied. “I have friends who sank into a deep depression both before and after turning 30.”

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At his day job--he’s an editorial assistant at Callboard, published by Theatre Bay Area, a San Francisco theater support organization--"I never brought my own coffee cup. Instead, I gravitated toward this one that was already there that says, ‘Look who’s 30!’ It just beckoned me. No one else touches it.”

This is someone who admits to “reading one self-help book after another. I make fun of Deepak Chopra, but I love him. Maybe if I write a self-help book some day, it might break the addiction.”

A conversation with the writer’s mother, Shirley Gomolvilas, sheds some light on the subject of self-help without recourse to books.

In 1969, using money her mother had borrowed, she followed her Thai boyfriend--a doctor--to America, where he felt he could make a better living. He didn’t know she was coming--"I wanted to surprise him,” she said. She arranged to stay with a friend in Indiana, thinking it couldn’t be that far from her boyfriend in Ohio. It was farther than she had expected, figuratively as well as literally. The romance soon fizzled.

“I decided to stay because I could help my mom by working as a nurse’s aid and sending money home,” she recalled. But she soon figured out that she could make more money as a waitress in a Polynesian restaurant in Indianapolis. She also rebounded in her personal life, marrying a fellow immigrant, hospital lab technician Somchai Gomolvilas, within barely a year after the big breakup.

Her next big move, now with her young son, Prince, was to California. Indiana was “too cold--my son walked to school every day in the snow.” Concerned about whether he could get a good job, Prince’s father didn’t follow until four years later--and then tended bar before finding a hospital job. Mother and son returned to Thailand for a visit--but it was “too hot. I couldn’t stand it,” said Shirley. It was Prince’s only visit to Thailand.

The young Prince resisted his mother’s efforts to interest him in organized sports and in a career as a doctor. “That wouldn’t work--he can’t stand to see blood,” she said.

In defiance of Asian American stereotypes, “I was bad at math,” the playwright recalls. “As my knowledge of Thai [language] continues to slip away, so does my memory of the times tables.”

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He did like to write, however--"which was very mysterious to my parents. There was nothing concrete I could show for it.” However, his mother noted proudly that a letter her 16-year-old son wrote in defense of his high school appeared in the Pasadena Star-News. And her son recalled that his facility with words allowed him “to swindle my way through a lot.” In college, “I always did my homework at the last minute, because I could whip up papers in an instant and get an A.”

High school friend Kissel remembers somewhat quirkier writing. “He wrote strange things about ‘Howard the Duck’ and Lea Thompson.” The two of them debated the nuances of the lyrics of Cher’s hits. At one point, “he did a stand-up comedy show, and one of his jokes had something to do with genitals and a cheese grater. I never got it. We all thought he was a little crazy, that he would never make it.”

The first professional theater production Gomolvilas ever saw was the musical “Blood Brothers,” in London on a three-week high school tour. Though he liked it, his heart was with the movies. Turned down by USC’s film school, he went to San Francisco State University to study screenwriting--but only after his mother financed his first year by parlaying a half-roll of quarters into a jackpot of almost $5,000 at a slot machine in Las Vegas’ Frontier Hotel.

As a sophomore, Gomolvilas started teaching traffic school to help pay the bills. His other jobs prior to his current employment included stints in the men’s underwear department at J.C. Penney, a bowling alley, an after-school program at a day school, and as an office receptionist, plus lots of temping. Winston in “Big Hunk” is a would-be actor who supports himself as a temp.

In his college classes, Gomolvilas discovered that his plays were better than his screenplays. He also started seeing more theater--beginning with a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.”

“Since I worship David Mamet,” he said, “my early plays were very Mamet-like, but with a big, big heart. There were more swear words on the first page of my first play than in any play ever written.” Later, when he learned that a Mamet one-act would be in the same New York production as one of his own one-acts, “I wept.” (He continued weeping after a negative New York Times review of his own entry in that production, “but after I stuck in every self-help tape I had, I got over it.”)

Now that he has a master’s degree, he has “long since abandoned” most of those early plays. His fifth play--and his first with Asian American-specific characters--became “Big Hunk.”

Theaters “are looking for something fresh, and they’re really desperate for comedies,” he said. “The Asian American characters along with the wacky premise sparked interest” in “Big Hunk.”

But the play isn’t aiming only to be funny--it includes a subplot involving cancer. Gomolvilas said he borrowed this from one of his earlier plays, because “I wanted to contrast the wildly outrageous threat of spontaneous combustion with the wildly serious threat of cancer, which my mother had to deal with about 10 years ago.”

‘Big Hunk” won second prize in South Coast Repertory’s California Playwrights Competition in 1996, which led to a staged reading in Costa Mesa. “I was so surprised at the response,” Gomolvilas said. “Orange County is seemingly my anti-audience: older, conservative, basically white. I was pleased to see [the play’s appeal] could cross race and generations.”

The play went on to three more readings: at the Lark Theatre Company in New York, the Mark Taper Forum and Equinox Theatre in San Francisco. East West’s Dang saw the Taper reading, which was directed by the Taper’s Asian Theatre Workshop leader, Chay Yew, who’s now staging the East West production.

Dang, who has talked about how he found his voice as an Asian American artist during the protests of the casting of the non-Asian Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role in “Miss Saigon,” now finds himself explaining that the “Big Hunk” cast has no Thai Americans. A few of those who auditioned, he said, “had thick accents, which would be hard in a comedy.” Because the cast lacks Thai speakers, the actors playing the parents are being coached by Gomolvilas and another Thai speaker.

Gomolvilas shrugs off the issue: “As long as Jonathan Pryce isn’t playing the lead, we’ll be OK.”

Shirley Gomolvilas has accepted that medical school is not in her son’s future, nor is she pressuring him to get married. Now a waitress at the Cook Shack in South Pasadena, she still gives mixed signals about his writing career, however. “He did all this by himself,” she said. “I think he got lucky. A lot of people can write a lot better than him.” If that isn’t much of an endorsement, she added that she loves “Big Hunk”: “It’s very funny. The mother reminds me of me--she’s a smart mouth.”

* “Big Hunk o’ Burnin’ Love,” David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Opens July 15. Regular schedule: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. (No matinee July 18.) Ends Aug. 2. $22-$27. (800) 233-3123.


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