Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Tag Archives: East West Players
I have been physically out of the Los Angeles theater world for about a year and a half now, but my heart still lives there. As such, I have followed with interest the implosion of the L.A. Stage Alliance, after a last-straw debacle of an awards show at the end of last month caused many of its major members to pull out and the organization to finally fold on Monday, April 6.
For those who may not be aware, this organization has operated the Ovations Awards – sort of the Tonys for Los Angeles theatrical companies of various sizes. This year the necessarily online version of the awards turned into a farce in one telling moment. Jully Lee, a voting member of the organization, watched a photo of a different actress be displayed on the screen as her nomination was announced, and then heard her name mispronounced as well.
Another long-problematic issue also came to a head at the same time, as the nomination also followed the Alliance’s questionable but longer-standing policy of choosing only one of the theaters of any co-production to list along with the performance. The show Lee had been a part of was co-produced by two companies. The one she belonged to, the East-West Players, was not mentioned. The other company, The Fountain Theatre, was.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. East-West Players was founded in 1965 by 9 prominent Asian actors to offer mainstream theatrical opportunities, rather than the usual stereotypical ones, to Asian and Pacific Islander actors, directors and producers. With the current wave of Anti-Asian speech and violence, the lack of company mention, the “all Asian women look alike” implication of the photo, and the tone deaf mispronunciation of the name of an Asian performer was too much. The East-West Players withdrew from the organization, and quite quickly 46 others (a third of its membership, including the multiple-Tony-winning Center Theatre Group) did as well.
Interestingly, Deaf West Theater, the nation’s premiere company for deaf performers, pointed out as it withdrew membership that they had tried unsuccessfully to get the online awards to use ASL interpreters so their own members could fully participate. Apparently being insensitive toward minorities was not unique to the Alliance’s dealing with the AAPI community.
Still, it must be said that this whole embarrassing fracas was just the final nail in a coffin which had been under construction for some time.
I first came to know of the L.A. Stage Alliance when it was known as the Theater League Alliance. The executive director of the Pasadena Playhouse at the time, the late Lars Hansen, left his post at the Playhouse in 1999 to become the Alliance’s president. At the time I was interested in the varying reactions to his move. I received notes from some who were breathing a sigh of relief that his influence would no longer be felt at the Playhouse. Still, I also remember Lars’ excitement about what his new responsibilities could do to expand the presence of theater in the L.A. area.
Indeed, Hansen introduced ideas to the theaters involved, large and small, which have paid dividends, including online same-day half priced ticketing, and the advent of LA Stage Magazine. Still, his tenure was short and in the intervening years – as articles in the Los Angeles and New York Times have both pointed out – the L.A. Stage Alliance’s policies had put them on rather shaky ground even before the pandemic caused major upheaval in all live performance industries.
In some ways, this collapse is symbolic of a failure increasingly being acknowledged throughout the entertainment business, where the old hierarchies have been predominantly white and predominantly male: Without an increasing sensitivity regarding race, nationality, gender and identity, both audiences and participants may cease to be involved with the art form. The organizations representing these industries, and the industries themselves will either need to change, or will die.
Take, as example, the increasingly pointed work of an organization called Maestra in New York City, which is making the case for women as composers, orchestral musicians, musical directors, etc., in productions on and off Broadway. Or, of course, think about the years-long campaigns of Oscars So White which has caused huge changes in the eligible voting group, and greater diversity in the organization’s leadership. In the years leading up to the L.A. Stage’s Ovation Awards ceremony on March 30, that same kind of dialogue should have been central in that organization, but apparently it wasn’t.
Also, the Alliance was a financial burden for many of its members. It is not unusual for such organizations to support themselves with membership fees, but this one also expected theaters to pay a fee in order for a production to be considered for an Ovation Award: a pay to play deal. For big companies this was not necessarily a huge problem, though theater is rarely a major profit-making enterprise. For smaller companies – especially after the new Equity rules of the last few years stretched their limited funds more widely – it could be onerous.
As a lack of diversity and a lack of transparency, plus the financial issues, were refining members’ grievances, the pandemic hit. By June executive director Marco Gomez had furloughed the Alliance staff – hence the volunteers apparently left to run the awards ceremony. We all know how wise that decision was. It was Gomez who announced the cessation of the Alliance as an organization on Monday. Apparently the group’s press representative, Ken Werther, a good guy I’ve known for years, has now been left to answer questions Gomez should be dealing with. That alone says a lot.
Apparently smaller theaters had already begun to gather in an alternate organization to support each other through these tough times. And it is highly likely that some awards organization, whether using the Ovation name or not, will reappear. There is a strong and lively theatrical community in Los Angeles which will not disintegrate over all this. In the meantime, at least the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, of which I was a member until I left the L.A. area, is still an awards-giving entity. Out of the ashes of the L.A. Stage Alliance will come something which will be less tone-deaf, more inclusive, and hopefully able to fully celebrate the remarkable treasure that theater in the greater Los Angeles area has become.
It is a large order: give an empathetic sense of what life is like for artistic persons of color trying to get ahead. Inject humor, avoid or explode stereotype, and evince hope using forms interconnected with the comparatively youthful generation beginning to feel empowered to make or coordinate change. The good news: by and large Nathan Ramos’ “As We Babble On,” receiving its world premiere at East West Players, in association with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, does quite a lot of what was ordered.
Essentially, we watch the birth and content of the graphic novel Benji, a Korean-American cartoonist and gay man, begins to construct when passed over for a promotion at a huge NYC comics enterprise. Benji, like virtually all of the people in the play, is actually bi-racial – a fact which further complicates the ways the world sees him and them, and how they all define themselves. Into all these intertwining conflicts, the story develops.
As he attempts to branch out and do his own work, Benji bumps into a former lover, wrestles with his relationship with the young African-American video blogger who is his roommate, and must deal with his automatic reaction to his budding journalist sister potentially, and stereotypically, connecting with a wealthy young man who can open doors. What he does with all of this, defined in terms of who is or should be a super hero – and what his own role in such a tale would be – proves consistently entertaining, rather heated, and fairly illuminating.
Will Choi is Benji. In trying to make his character the unassertive person he is, Choi resorts to a kind of full-body whining which proves mostly annoying, but when he pulls out of that space and into the creative and intellectual processing part of his character, he is as witty as his material, and as effective. As his wildly assertive roommate, Jiavani Linayao proves a highly entertaining bundle of energy, radiating her character’s resilience, and assurance of her own power to persuade, to tilttilate, and to marshal her online forces even as many of them see her as a fetishist’s dream.
Sachin Bhatt in every element of his carriage as Benji’s former boyfriend, embodies the paradox of the person whose professional success has come at the cost of being the token, or the nervous-making “other,” in almost all of his social settings. On the other hand, Jaime Schwartz, as Benji’s more caucasian-appearing sister, deals with issues of youth and femininity as barriers in an online journalistic world where her roll has been assigned to fluff pieces rather than the in-depth hard journalism she knows she is capable of. Enter Bobby Foley, shining with an upper class confidence as a tycoon’s son famed for excess, who may or may not be intent on either using Benji’s sister or caring for and assisting her.
Some of the best of this production comes from Tasshi Nakagawa’s layered set, which provides spaces for the many online commentaries from the roommate’s fans or Benji’s mom, thus providing the many other characters which semi-populate the storyline and the stage. Director Alison M. De La Cruz doesn’t shy away from the more intense, more sexual, or even on occasion more crass elements of the play, giving it a starkness at important moments which can be either humorous or disturbing. Special shout-out to Sheiva Khalily, whose projections not only include the online commentaries of the unseen characters, but the cartoon-hero versions of the play’s central figures as Benji increasingly sees and draws them, and the comic book “titles” for specific moments in Benji’s journey.
The play apparently began as a two-act piece and has been edited into a single, long act with no intermission. This is effective in some ways, in that the story continues to build toward Benji’s own self revelations, and those of his friends, in a single arc. It is made into a long sit, however, as you can tell by the warning explanations to everyone prior to curtain that there will be no bathroom break.
“As We Babble On” is not a great play, but it offers up insights worth taking note of, and offers a nod to the way of the arts in a world lived increasingly online. It has entertaining characters, but – if this matters to you – also contains a certain amount of fairly overt sexuality of varying types. This is not a play for kids. Go catch it quick if you are interested, though, as it enters its final weekend.
What: “As We Babble On” When: through June 24, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Also St. in Los Angeles. How Much: $40 – $50 Info: (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.org
The first is the affirmation it gives to people of Japanese descent, as it tells the tale of that black mark on 20th century American history, the Japanese Internment. The story is an important one, and – as the program states – those Issei and Nissei who lived it are disappearing with time. Having a way to keep their story alive, and to let those culturally linked to it see themselves on stage, is important indeed. To some extent, “Allegiance” does that.
The other way to look at “Allegiance” is simply as a work of theater, evaluating it on the more universal aspects one normally ascribes to a Broadway musical. There the results are far more mixed. With all its good intentions, passion and relevence, “Allegiance” proves somewhat antiquated in style, formulaic in construction, and lacking the depth one would hope to find in a piece about something so profound.
The story follows a single family through the devastating changes to Japanese American life caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Executive Order 9066, forcing all Japanese on the US mainland out of coastal areas, with the loss of homes and businesses, and into prison camps. In the process, it works to present the rifts within and around that Japanese community as they cope with the overt racism of this event: of generation, of political thought, and of action.
This is a tall order for any musical. The essential book, by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, although choppy at times, manages to cover this episodic story with breadth if not depth. However, Kuo’s musical numbers keep the pacing of the piece from working properly. Every single song is formulated the same way: start small and introspective, then build and build to a highly dramatic and affirmative ending, even if it really isn’t appropriate to end that way.
With the exception of the opening number – which promises all the elements which should be there throughout – the songs, which multiply during sequences in the camp, disrupt any attempt to build tension and dramatic structure. Instead, you have dialogue, dramatic musical affirmation, then a bit more dialogue, then another dramatic musical affirmation, pretty much in the same tone throughout. It makes what should be a consistently heartrending story become formulaic, and doesn’t really allow for enough development of characters we should want to care about.
Still, the ensemble works hard to make things flow, and to create characters which resonate with the audience. Ethan Le Phong and Elena Wang have the most fully rounded portraits to deal with, as the young adult brother and sister – Sammy and Kei Kimura – whose tale is central to the piece. Le Phong makes Sammy vibrate with an energy half anger and half determination to live into his identity as an American. Wang, as a woman trying to preserve the bond between generations, speaks to a growing self-identity forged through difficult times.
Scott Watanabe gives their determinedly Japanese father, legitimately angry at the loss of the fruits of a lifetime of labor, a stalwart, noble quality which underscores the reasonableness of the anger. George Takai makes the elderly grandfather the antithesis of this – a man who has long learned to adapt to whatever comes, finding a way to create his own happiness in the midst of disarray and discrimination.
Also worthy of note are Natalie Holt MacDonald as the white American army nurse assigned to the camp, whose heart goes out to the people she can only partially help and to Sammy in particular, and Greg Watanabe, as the recognized advocate for Japanese in America whose approach to government has been blamed by some as acquiescence.
Director Snehal Desai has worked to take this choppy thing and make it into a cohesive whole. At times this works brilliantly, as it does in the scene surrounding the family’s arrival at the Heart Mountain camp in northwest Wyoming. In others, even the constant use of Se Hyun Ho and Adam Flemming’s projection-rich sets cannot keep this show on emotional target.
In sum, the Japanese Internment was a blight on American democracy, and putting it on stage for all to see is important. As a contemporary anthropologist said at the time, the fact that these same internees returned to their homes and worked to become part of the American mainstream is remarkable, given their treatment. To celebrate their story and struggle in music and on stage, and to let Japanese Americans experience their own heritage is enriching within that community as well. “Allegiance” does all that. One just wishes it was as good as its intentions.
What: “Allegiance” When: through April 1, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Where: JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 680-3700 or http://www.AllegianceMusical.com