John RIDLEY’S worn a lot of hats as a writer -- novelist, screenwriter, journalist and commentator -- but no project has given him as much joy as penning his first play, “Ten Thousand Years,” a story of war from the perspective of Japanese pilots during World War II.
To understand why a successful black writer in Hollywood would spend more than $45,000 of his own money to mount this production, you have to go back to the late 1980s, when Ridley was a student at New York University, majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures.
“Back then, Japan was economically strong, and Americans were afraid they were going to buy out all the factories, and we’d all be working for Honda,” says Ridley, sitting in his office on the Universal Studios lot. “People were demonizing the Japanese, like they treated the Arabs and OPEC in the 1970s.
“I’d always been interested in World War II and would watch these old movies about it on late-night TV. I noticed that the ones about the European theater distinguished between Nazis and the good Germans, who helped the Allies. But in movies about the Pacific theater, it was only about crazy, evil kamikaze pilots.”
After college, Ridley began writing for TV sitcoms, including “Martin,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The John Larroquette Show.” Later, he moved into drama, as a writer and producer for “Third Watch,” and creator-producer of “Platinum.”
He leans back on the couch, relaxed and open, wearing confidence like an unscented cologne.
“It was OK, and you make good money, but TV writing can be very limited, so I started to write this play,” says Ridley, who put on a reading of the work in 1997. “Kipp Shiotani was in it, and the reading was pleasant, but I didn’t really do anything further with it. Four years later, I met Kipp at a party, and he asked about it. So I pulled it out and decided to rewrite it.”
Ridley, who looks back at the first version of “Ten Thousand Years” as a shallow reflection of its current incarnation, wanted to explore the issues all young men grapple with when they go to war. While the story is set in Japan in the 1940s, the language is now contemporary English, and the emotions evoked are timeless.
“Kipp and his wife, Jennifer Aquino, had done a lot of theater and knew how to mount a show,” Ridley says. “I had this blood money I’d made in Hollywood, and we started to work on it. Then 9-11 happened, and I thought no one would want to hear about why young men would give up their lives for a cause. I was in New York on 9-11, and I didn’t want to deal with it.”
But as time went on, the three continued to work on the play, holding more readings, and the material seemed increasingly relevant in a world where suicide bombers may make their presence felt at any time. So last fall, Ridley decided to put the work on stage and booked the El Portal Forum Theatre in North Hollywood.
While Ridley emphasizes the universality of the characters’ experiences in the story, those who portray the young aviators feel a special pride in the roles they are playing.
“My ethnic background is Japanese, and seeing a play that put a human face on Japanese characters during World War II was really exciting to me,” says Shiotani, who serves as director-producer and plays the flippant pilot Tanaka.
“My father’s brother, who was born in America, went back to Japan to study before the war. He was conscripted into the Japanese army and was forced to fight Americans. It took him 13 years to get back to the United States after the war. People never hear about these things.”
There’s even a difference, he notes, between kamikaze pilots -- who knew that they would die when their planes were shot down so would steer their aircraft deliberately into an Allied target to do the most damage -- and ohka pilots, young aviators selected to fly specially designed airplane bombs on suicide missions toward the end of the war.
The pilots in “Ten Thousand Years” are members of an ohka squadron, and Ridley has given each character a life rich with nuance. Cast members note that roles for Asian American male actors are few and far between in Hollywood.
“In an L.A. venue that’s not specifically East West Players or the Asian theater workshops at the Mark Taper Forum, it’s very unusual to have a play with an all Asian American cast,” says Reggie Lee, a seasoned film and TV actor whose stage credits include the Tony Award-winning 1994 Broadway revival of “Carousel.”
Ridley’s play, Lee says, breaks stereotypes that society often holds about Asian Americans.
“There’s someone in it who’s deathly afraid to die, someone who wants to go on the mission, someone who’s analytical, and someone who’s very emotional,” he says. “My character (Hanai) is a kid who’s been beaten all his life and told that he’s not worthy. He feels he has to die in order to prove that he’s enough.”
Ridley, whose wife is Asian American, says he is perhaps more sensitive to the problems facing Asian American actors because of his own experiences as an African American writer. The author of six novels, Ridley has written several movies, including “Undercover Brother,” “Three Kings” and “U-Turn.” He recently completed a rewrite of “The Night Watchman” for director Spike Lee and is executive producer of a new TV series, “Barber Shop,” scheduled to air this fall on Showtime.
“I went through a phase where every script I was offered was a ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ ” Ridley says. “The guys and girls involved in this play are incredibly talented. Without them, the play’s just a 97-page paperweight.”
Matthew Yang King, who portrays the base commander Yoshida, has appeared in numerous plays, including Sir Peter Hall’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2002 and Broadway’s “Titanic, the Musical.”
“There are more opportunities for Asian Americans in theater than TV and film,” King says. “It’s tough for Asian American females, but the stereotypes are harder for actors. The Asian American male hasn’t been made sexy yet. This play has given me a chance to dig my teeth into something new. It’s historical drama that represents Asians as real human beings.”
In a city with hundreds of small theater options, Ridley acknowledges that attracting an audience to this play hasn’t been easy. “People in L.A. don’t go out the way people in New York go out to theater,” he says. “If you live in Culver City, you think twice about having to drive forever to get to the Valley. It’s hard to get the word out past all the noise.”
Ridley says there are no immediate plans for the play beyond its current run. “I think it’d be a mistake to try to do a movie or an off-Broadway production right now,” Ridley says. “But I’m very committed to the material. Other than writing books, which is so insular, this play has been the most rewarding experience in art I’ve ever had in Hollywood. On opening night, we had people crying when they left the theater. Success is when you feel good about the work you’ve done, and that’s what this play was about for me.”
‘Ten Thousand Years’
Where: El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: March 3
Contact: (866) 811-4111