By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment
Leah Nanako Winkler arrived more than flustered, bounding into a dressing room at East West Players after having endured what should have been a 20-minute trek from Universal City to Little Tokyo.
Ms. Winkler, meet the 101.
The evening’s performance of her new play, “Kentucky,” was barely 90 minutes from curtain, and Winkler had plenty of tasks beforehand, including a quick chat with The Rafu.
Now a hard-studying MFA student in Brooklyn, Winkler has composed an honest look at family, with all its glory as well as warts, drawing on her experiences growing up in Lexington, Kentucky.
Her play follows Hiro, a woman on the verge of big-city career success whose homecoming is driven by the desire to dissuade her born-again sister from entering into a marriage that Hiro finds unsavory. Dealing with her family’s southern leanings, her own misgivings and a talking cat, Hiro’s mission is derailed into a completely unplanned direction.
“For me it was important to see a mixed-race family on stage and not seen through rose-colored glasses, that they have their faults, that they’re not perfect,” Winkler explained.
She said she is encouraged by the slow trend toward diversity in mass media, citing TV shows like “Modern Family,” but said a more honest approach is important.
“That show is great, but it’s kind of like ‘The Brady Bunch.’ It’s so positive, and you don’t see a gritty, real dysfunctional family, so it was important for me to include that on stage.”
Diversity – or rather, lack thereof – in show business has been a topic of great and heated discussion in recent years. The Oscars have been slammed for its nominating few if any people of color for its major awards, and the “whitewashing” of Asian characters and actors seems to be gaining momentum in recent years.
In a recent Rafu story about the casting of the animated “Kubo and the Two Strings,” veteran character actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa said the key to diversity on screen will be to take creative control before the cameras roll.
“The perfect project will come when we have the means to create our own stories on our own terms,” Tagawa said.
Winkler, born in Japan and raised in Kentucky, would not only seem to agree, she’s making it her life’s work.
“For me, it’s important to be positive,” she said. “As a storyteller and someone who creates content, it’s important to empower people who feel that they don’t have a distinct identity.”
Identity is a topic that has impacted Winkler in ways many cannot imagine. As a child in Japan, she was invariably viewed as “the American,” a label that had its advantages as well as drawbacks. Her unconventional looks landed her some modeling jobs, and she enjoyed a fair amount of celebrity.
But there’s also the concept of junsui – purity – that continues to be a mindset in Japan. Winkler referred to the recent criticism directed at Arianna Miyamoto, who was named Miss Universe Japan 2015, only to be the subject of criticism because she is of mixed race and “not Japanese enough.”
“There are a lot of interesting conversations when you’re hafu, and in Japan, I don’t think it’s widely accepted yet,” Winkler said.
After moving to Lexington, she said the inverse became the norm, that she was seen as the “Japanese” kid in the neighborhood.
“I don’t think there’s a large vocabulary that exists to describe what it means to be of mixed race, not yet,” she added, and then described a conversation with Satomi Blair, who starred in the New York production of “Kentucky,” that gave birth to a novel and rather amusing idea.
“Blair and I were going through what people think of half-Asian girls, and there isn’t much, only a not-so-complimentary reference in a Weezer song,” she said. “So we thought we’d try to think of some stereotypes about ourselves, but it seems we don’t have enough of an identity to have assumptions made about us. We were comparing things like, ‘I’m really bad at making coffee, are you bad at making coffee?’ So were started making them up – ‘Those hapa girls, you know, bad at coffee.’”
Kidding aside, Winkler is adamant that she and those who shared her experiences of multicultural life need to tell their own stories and create their own identities.
The spate of recent films that have cast Caucasian actors in Asian roles – or simply eliminated the Asian traits of characters – has drawn her ire, as it has for many people. In particular, the casting of very non-Asian Emma Stone as the Asian American lead in Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha” is a choice that was beyond unacceptable.
“What was tragic, hurtful, ridiculous was that they used the excuse that [the lead] was supposed to be Asian American, but that she didn’t look Asian. That’s the wrong thing to say, it’s gaslighting in the worst way.”
Winkler has vowed to always work with a multicultural cast, simply because that reflects an accurate picture of modern American life, at least as it appears from her millennial perspective.
“You start to see it in commercials lately, so maybe TV ads are picking up the fact that we exist, and that, you know, we also eat Cheerios,” she said.
There’s also a degree of pragmatism in Winkler’s approach, an idea that any valuable resource squandered is to the sad detriment of all.
“One of my main goals is to create strong roles for Asian American women, because in New York, if you’re an Asian actress, you’re consistently going in for the same roles,” she explained. “You’re not even given a type outside of Asian, and that breaks my heart.”
In casting bridesmaids for “Kentucky,” Winkler said she was stunned by the sheer volume of Asian American actresses who auditioned.
“I had no idea this much talent was out there, and every woman at the audition had been in some production of ‘Miss Saigon,’ some three or four times. I thought, ‘You can do more than this.’”
In telling her stories, her way, Winkler hopes to be a model for others to make their voices heard, to tap into the creative energy that all too often is overlooked.
“If you take one hour to ask around, there are all kinds of talent you’ve never seen,” she said.
The East West Players production of “Kentucky” is being performed at the David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St. in Little Tokyo. Remaining showtimes are Thursday and Friday, Dec. 1-2, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 3, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 4, at 2 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, Dec. 8-9, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 10, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 11, at 2 p.m. Visit www.eastwestplayers.org for tickets.