When Emily Kuroda was 26, she had accepted as fact that she wouldn't have a life in the theater.
Though she had earned bachelor's and master's degrees in drama at Fresno State (now Cal State Fresno), Kuroda had never been cast in a leading role in any of her college productions--in large part, she suspects, because she is Japanese American. Her advisors had steered her toward a teaching credential, but she hated that idea.
She had dabbled--and rejected--such subjects as engineering and nutrition before returning to drama, and now she had no idea what she was going to do with her degrees. She earned a living as a bank teller.
One day, Kuroda noticed a placard that advertised a performance by a touring company from East West Players. She had never heard of the L.A.-based Asian American theater company, but she was intrigued by its concept and excited by the performance that she saw.
Six months later, she moved to L.A. and joined East West. Within a year, she was cast in five productions and played a leading role in her third East West show, "The Avocado Kid."
Today, at 48, she is one of L.A.'s preeminent stage actors, has recurring roles in two network TV series, and had a prominent role in a recent HBO movie.
On Wednesday, she and two other actors will open the California premiere of Chay Yew's "Red" at East West's home stage in Little Tokyo. Kuroda plays a Chinese American romance novelist in the drama, which is set against the backdrop of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the '60s. Yew, who's also the director, is one of Kuroda's biggest fans.
"In person, Emily is very guarded," Yew said. "She holds it all in, in a very Japanese way. But on stage, all of these things come out like missiles. You can't help but be scorched."
Luis Alfaro, whose play "Straight as a Line" brought Kuroda a nomination last year for an Ovation Award, L.A.'s top theater honor, said she is ideal for "larger than life" characters. "I'd love to do an adaptation of 'Mother Courage' for her," referring to Bertolt Brecht's play about a scrappy, scheming war profiteer and survivor.
When Emily was a girl, no one would have thought of her as a budding Mother Courage, judging from her own self-assessment: "In grammar school, I didn't talk. Everybody said I was the invisible one. I'm still very shy."
Her Japanese American father's family had been sent to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz., during World War II. From the camp, young William Kuroda enlisted in the Army, trained in military intelligence, and spent much of the war in India. After the war, he was assigned to Japan, where he met Kazuko Shindo, who would become his wife, Kay Kuroda. They married after William brought the family back to the United States in 1950.
As a child, Emily lived at the family farm on the outskirts of Fresno, washing and helping pack the tomatoes, green beans and eggplant. She still has "a farm girl aspect," Yew said. "She's very down-to-earth. No pretense."
Her parents spoke Japanese to each other, but she was not allowed to do so. Her mother told her that her older cousins had problems in school because of their accents.
High school exercises in forensics, oral interpretation and drama provided a way for Emily to emerge from her shell. "I loved it, because I could say other people's words. There is a safety in being removed," she recalled. She directed "Blithe Spirit" in high school, but "they wouldn't let me act. They didn't tell me why. I just never got cast."
Although she was cast in chorus lines during college, "at no point did anyone say I could be an actor." Actress Miyoshi Umeki ("Sayonara" and "Flower Drum Song," and the TV series "The Courtship of Eddie's Father") was her idol. But generally she didn't see many Asian faces in the mass media, so she was prepared to accept her career limitations--until East West came along.
Not that the abundant acting opportunities at East West provided her with an immediate way to make a living. The company was then housed in its longtime 99-seat space on Santa Monica Boulevard, between east Hollywood and Silver Lake. Not only were the actors unpaid, but they had to pay $40 a month in membership dues. Kuroda worked as a picture framer and also received $200 a month for handling East West's publicity and marketing from 1979 to '81.
To Kuroda, East West was home. "We pretty much worked there seven days a week. We even had sewing calls, because we had to make our own costumes." Mako, the group's longtime artistic director, told the members: " 'If there is anything else you can do in this life, you should do it.' But it was addicting. As far as finding myself and what I want to do, I found it here." She also found her husband, actor Alberto Isaac, at East West--they married in 1980.
Kuroda has performed in more than 35 East West productions. "We call her the bag lady of East West Players," said the current artistic director, Tim Dang. "From the first day of rehearsals, she'll bring all the props the character will need: glassware, magazines, diaries. She'll open a bag of chips and serve them to everyone, as her character."
She's also known, Yew said, for her "maternal instincts" toward young actors. Kuroda has no children, but she has played many mothers on stage and screen.
Working out of a larger theater since 1998, East West actors are now paid, under the terms of Actors' Equity contracts, and work rules apply. Kuroda noticed the difference when she appeared in Singapore Repertory Theatre's production of "Red" earlier this year. "The compensation was all right, but they could work us 12 hours straight, since there was no union."
Kuroda also performed in "The Theory of Everything" and "The Glass Menagerie" at Singapore Repertory, and she has expanded her stage work to many local theaters besides East West.
In the late '80s, she was an artistic associate for the resident company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, where she spent six months rehearsing and performing "Minamata," a creation by the late, visionary director Reza Abdoh--"a genius, but he could be the most difficult director I ever worked for," Kuroda recalled. The physical training for "Minamata" was "like boot camp," she said.
Kuroda also got screen roles, beginning with an appearance as "a bad guy" on the TV series "Remington Steele." In 1986, she was a regular on a short-lived ABC sitcom "Gung Ho." Although some critics cited stereotypes of Japanese Americans in it, Kuroda remembers it fondly as "wonderful, because there was a nice dialogue between us and the writers."
During her "Minamata" experience, she also was playing a secretary on "L.A. Law." She currently plays another secretary on the CBS series "The Agency," and she portrays a Korean American whose daughter is the best friend of one of the leading characters on WB's "The Gilmore Girls," a series she praises for writing Korean Americans "as real people."
Like many Asian American actors, Kuroda writes letters protesting the paucity of Asian Americans in the mass media. Such roles "don't have to be positive," she said. "Although I would like the negative balanced with the positive, what really bothers me is if it's not real. You can add humanity to what might look like a negative role." She believes she did this in the HBO movie "Stranger Inside," shown in June, in which she played a Korean American grocer sent to prison for killing a customer.
Kuroda enjoys crossing ethnic boundaries in her roles. Her character in "Straight as a Line" was British and was originally played by an African American. She said she has never heard any complaints when she is cast outside her own Japanese American heritage, but she is sensitive to others' feelings on this subject.
A casting director once asked her if she could play a Korean character as well as a Korean could. She said no. "They were dumbfounded," she said. "I shocked them so much, they used me."
'RED,' David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., downtown L.A. Dates: Opens Wednesday, 8 p.m. Regular schedule: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. EndsOct. 28. Dark next Saturday afternoon. Sign-language performance Oct. 26. Prices: $25-$30. Phone: (213) 625-7000.