Honoring the Past, Looking to the Future

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

If the old saw about not judging a book by its cover were applied to theaters, East West Players would've been the troupe for which it was coined. Housed for more than three decades in Silver Lake quarters as modest as its achievements were profound, America's oldest Asian American theater was nothing if not easily missed.

But those days are over. For the pioneering 33-year-old company, which for years has been housed in a no-frills 99-seat made-over warehouse, has now relocated to the former Union Church in downtown's Little Tokyo, marking the difficult transition to mid-size. The centerpiece of the renovated landmark facility, now known as the Union Center for the Arts, is the 220-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre, which opens on March 18 with "Pacific Overtures."

East West Players raised $1.7 million to finance the remodeling of their portion of the $3.4-million renovation of the 1923 building, which also houses the nonprofits Visual Communications and Artcore Gallery. East West's lead donors include playwright Hwang's father, Henry Hwang, who gave $150,000, and George and Sakaye Aratani, who gave $160,000 and for whom the building's courtyard is named.

Yet impressive as East West Players' expansion may be, it is matched by the track record of a theater whose impact has long been more than mid-sized. In a city where companies come and go--where living in the shadow of the entertainment industry means struggling for audiences and to keep casts intact--it is one of only a few ensembles to have made it past the decade mark, let alone to three and counting. And while countless L.A. theaters survive under Actors' Equity's sub-100 seat plan--which allows them to pay union actors only the equivalent of expense money--it's both rare and remarkable for such a group to overcome the financial hurdles that stand in the way of the move to mid-size.

East West Players' success is, of course, preceded by that of its alumni. Along the way, East West Players has proven an invaluable nurturing ground for several generations of theater artists. Indeed, the majority of today's best-known Asian American theater, film and television talents--from playwrights Philip Kan Gotanda and David Henry Hwang to such actors as John Lone, Sab Shimono and Amy Hill--have passed through East West's doors.

"They did my first piece, a musical called 'The Avocado Kid,' in 1979," recalls the San Francisco-based Gotanda ("The Wash," "Ballad of Yachiyo"). "They gave me my first shot. I was very aware that Asian American theaters existed. But for their existence, I don't think I would have entertained the idea that I could write a piece."

Equally important, East West set an example for other institutions. The country's other major Asian American theaters--including San Francisco's Asian-American Theatre, New York's Pan Asian Repertory Theater and Seattle's Northwest Asian-American Theater--were all founded during the '70s, on the model of East West's early success.

Since then, countless part- and full-time producing companies in North America--from Toronto's Can-Asian/Sansei North Productions to Chicago's Paper Angels Productions--have also looked to the East West beacon. And the fact that today there's a Web site called the Asian American Theatre Revue that lists several dozen such companies can be directly attributed to the ground broken by East West Players.

"I wasn't consciously working to establish a model," says veteran Broadway and film actor Mako, who was the company's first artistic director and leader until 1989. "What we were trying to do, consciously, was to be honest with ourselves, learning to cope with elements that were surrounding us, such as racism and discrimination."

It began in 1965 with a shoestring staging of "Rashomon," at USC's Hancock Hall. The production was put on by a group of friends, united in their common frustration with the limited opportunities then available for Asian American actors in Hollywood.

"The work that we were getting was really not complete characters," recalls actress Beulah Quo. "The roles were more or less atmosphere."

In addition to Quo and Mako, the group included Rae Creevey, James Hong, June Kim, Guy Lee, Pat Li and Yet Lock. Their "Rashomon" was well received and subsequently transferred, first to the University of Judaism (then located on Wilshire Boulevard), and later to the Warner Theater on La Cienega Boulevard.

Ironically perhaps, it didn't take long for Hollywood to come knocking. "Robert Wise came to see ['Rashomon'] when he was casting 'Sand Pebbles,' " recalls Quo. "He cast a number of us. Mako had a good role and was nominated for an Oscar for that, and James [Hong] and I ran a brothel for the sailors."

But the siren call of the film world didn't spell the end of the East West Players. On the contrary, recalls Quo, "It was Mako's idea that we've got to keep this going."

After locating space in the basement of a Presbyterian church in Silver Lake, the group began producing more shows. "We felt we needed a place for us to work out," recalls Mako. "It was basically dealing with our own needs for a place to work where we, in a sense, dictated our destiny."

At the time, there were no other Asian American theaters in the United States. But there was an increasing faith in the viability of ethnically specific institutions.

Many of the actors and others involved in East West were also involved with L.A.'s Inner City Cultural Center, a pioneering multicultural organization born out of the ashes of the Watts riots. Consequently, they weren't daunted by the then-unconventional idea of Asians from different backgrounds collaborating with one another.

"When we first started working together, I was doing a TV show," recalls Quo. "The producer said, 'Chinese and Japanese and Koreans together? Never.' We were really the first group of Asian Americans working together in L.A. That's common now. But in those days, people never thought of it."

One problem they did face, however, was the dearth of dramatic material written for Asian actors. "There was absolutely no Asian Pacific American material," recalls Quo. "So, in 1965, we wrote a grant.

"In 1966, we got a two-year Rockefeller grant of $28,500--a lot of money at that time. We started a national writing contest, and that's how we first started encouraging young people to write of their history. To me, that is one of the lasting contributions of East West Players."

East West produced an average of three productions a year at its first home. But by 1970 or so, friction had begun to arise between the group and the church it called home.

"By then, the church wanted to read all of our scripts," says Quo. "Some of the boys were experimenting with disrobing [onstage], and so we thought it was time to move on."

A temporary home was found, also in Silver Lake. Then, in 1971, the group took over a nearby Santa Monica Boulevard space--the location that would house a 99-seat theater and serve as the company's base until 1997.

There were, of course, other growing pains--born, perhaps, of philosophical conflicts that were there from the start. The chief split within the organization was over whether it should function primarily as an actors' showcase or an ensemble company.

"I really wanted a place to work out," recalls Mako. "Others wanted to showcase themselves. They weren't interested in creating a workshop as such, a place where we could develop ourselves."

Both purposes were ultimately served. East West Players shows were greeted with both critical and popular success. And while they also came to provide a launching pad for numerous entertainment industry careers, particularly during the 1970s, artists often remained loyal to the company, even after they went on to work in other mediums.

"There were a number of actors that we developed: Keone Young, Dana Lee, Shizuko Hoshi," says Mako. "Those people were so deeply involved with East West that, even if they'd gotten TV, their priority was with East West."

But during the 1980s, that kind of fidelity became increasingly rare. "The second wave [of actors] were like 'OK, [we] sort of agree,' and then, if they got a job, even if we were scheduled to open the next night, they would pull out," recalls Mako. "Resentment began to build up."

Then too, there were actors who spent many years with East West Players before the onset of "overnight fame." "John Lone was with us a long time, a good 10 years. Then came a script by David Henry Hwang, 'F.O.B.,' " says Mako of the play that premiered at East West in 1980. "David asked me to direct. I told David, 'There is only one actor that could handle this: John Lone.' So that took care of that. From then on, John's career blossomed."

In 1989, Mako and East West's board of directors came to loggerheads. The board charged the founder with nepotism--with regard to directorial assignments for his wife, Shizuko Hoshi, and the potential casting of his daughters--and Mako, who had always reigned as the theater's undisputed head, resigned.

"It followed me to the end, this actors' need to be seen," says Mako. "As time went by, I was more interested in creating an ensemble--a nucleus of actors who could do almost anything. But some of the board began to voice the concern that I kept using the same actors over and over. So accusations began to fly that I practiced nepotism."

Nobu McCarthy--a veteran actress who first joined East West in 1971 and appeared with Sab Shimono in the 1991 Mark Taper Forum production of Gotanda's "The Wash"--took over in the wake of the crisis. But she didn't inherit a totally sound operation.

"Mako had this theater for 25 years, so he knew exactly what he wanted to do and how he wanted to handle it," McCarthy told The Times in 1992. "He was very independent."

So McCarthy set about shoring up the company's finances and expanding the board of directors. Buoyed by the heyday of multiculturalism, she also began some controversial efforts to make the theater more culturally diverse, including adding non-Asians to the board and staff.

Also during this period, in 1990, the "Miss Saigon" controversy--which centered on the casting of an Anglo actor in the role of a Eurasian--brought a new level of activism to the Asian American theater community. The energy also helped East West Players.

In 1993, after four years at the helm, McCarthy decided to go back to acting. She was succeeded by Tim Dang--at 35, an artist whose tastes ran more toward musicals and experimental work than the more staid domestic dramas for which the company was best known. Dang also focused on efforts to find a new home for the group, a place where it could develop and grow.

The new home that East West Players has now come to occupy is a particularly poignant choice. "The building itself has a history that's related to the internment," says actor George Takei, who co-chaired the new theater campaign with Quo. "There were various assembly points in L.A., and that was one of them. The basement of the church served as a repository, a place of safekeeping, during the internment. And when we came back after the war, the basement served as temporary dormitory."

This history may serve as a reminder that the mission that launched East West Players has not yet been completed. "The landscape has dramatically changed from the '60s," says Takei. "However, when you compare Asian American acting opportunities in terms of other minority groups, it's wanting. So we do still have to do a lot of advocacy."

"There are more Asian American actors working," says Mako. "So in that sense, it has improved. But at the same time, is the improvement worth patting ourselves on the back? I say, No. At least in theater, as long as we have East West Players, or groups like that, we will have a say. Our collective voice will be heard."

And to be sure, East West Players does continue to provide a nurturing ground for young artists. "Just being in that environment gave me so much confidence," says actor Alec Mapa, who came to East West Players in 1996, after performing at the Public Theater in New York. "Spiritually, it really turned me around."

Yet the challenge that the company faces is more complex than it once was. "It's 1998," says Gotanda. "I don't think it's enough to say, 'We're an Asian American theater, so please come see us.' Theaters like East West must continue to examine why they exist, and to justify their existence by creating work that speaks to things that are important in the world right now. Otherwise, you're just there saying what's been said before.

"The substantive aspects of what Asian American theaters across the country create is very important," Gotanda continues. "Times have changed so much that you really have to re-articulate who and what you are right now. That's the challenge for Tim and East West."

* "Pacific Overtures," David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St. Opens March 18, 8 p.m. Regular schedule: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m., except no matinee March 21. Ends April 5. $20-$32; opening, $32-$37. (800) 233-3123.

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