By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“Masao and the Bronze Nightingale,” presented by Casa 0101 Theater in association with the Japanese American National Museum, explores a part of Los Angeles history that even many locals are unaware of.
The three-act play, which opened April 22 and closes May 15, is being performed at Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. First St. (at St. Louis Street) in Boyle Heights, with showtimes on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
During the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, Little Tokyo became an African American neighborhood known as Bronzeville. After Japanese Americans returned from the camps, Bronzeville transitioned back into Little Tokyo. Against this backdrop, Masao Imoto (played by Michael Sasaki), a Japanese American jazz musician from Boyle Heights, falls in love with a Bronzeville singer, Charlene Williams (played by Angela Oliver). Their romance causes upheaval in the Japanese, Black and Mexican American communities.
The play was written by Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara and Dan Kwong, based on a short story by Guevara, and is directed by Kwong, who also became a cast member starting May 6. The two writers have a long history.
“I first met Rubén Guevara in 1989 when we were both part of the performance art community that came up around Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica,” recalled Kwong. “Over time our paths began to cross more frequently, mainly through my work with Great Leap, Nobuko Miyamoto’s multicultural performing arts organization. I would say our working relationship began to develop in the early 2000s, culminating in 2016 when I directed his solo performance based on his autobiography, ‘Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer,’ presented at Casa 0101 Theater.
“In the fall of 2018, Rubén asked me to collaborate on adapting his short story ‘Masao and the Bronze Nightingale’ into a stage play, and to direct the production. We began discussions in November of that year and began actually working on it in early 2019. Last year I was an executive producer for KCET’s documentary about Rubén, ‘Con Safos.’ We have become artistic brothers.”
Much of Kwong’s stage experience has been in doing one-man shows, including “Secrets of the Samurai Centerfielder,” “Monkhood in 3 Easy Lessons” and “Correspondence of a Dangerous Enemy Alien.”
Making the Transition
The transition from page to stage was not a quick one. “By December of 2021 there had been seven drafts of the script (Rubén and I worked together writing the first two — after that I became primary writer of subsequent drafts) and we had done five public readings of the play. At that point I had a pretty clear sense of the storyline.
“Turning the script into a stage production was the biggest creative challenge I’ve ever had. Even though it was a modest-sized production in a small community theater, the number of moving parts and creative elements to supervise was more than I’ve ever had to handle. It required a strong team, which I was blessed to have.
“While the story is written in a fairly naturalistic style (i.e., a family drama; scenes take place in a living room, a Buddhist temple, a music store; we have realistic period props and costumes), the stage design was to be quite stylized and abstract.
“Both Rubén and I did not want a traditional set, and it is basically an empty stage. I had used the theatrical device of manipulating five wooden cubes in my last major solo performance art piece — ‘What? No Ping-Pong Balls?’ — and decided to use it again, increasing the number of cubes to eight. They would become tables, chairs, a bed, a work bench, etc. This also meant we needed a stage crew who could skillfully manipulate the cubes from scene to scene, and our four-person team is outstanding.
“I’ve been using multimedia (video, photos, music, sound effects, etc) in my performance art pieces for over three decades, and knew I wanted to incorporate as much as possible to create the world of the play and support the story.
“I began the sound design back in 2019, selecting and editing music, finding and creating sound effects, etc. Some of the sound cues used in our early public readings actually found their way into the final production. Joel Iwataki helped out by creating some additional sound effects, refining the rough versions I had created. His brother Dave had done sound design for my other play ‘Be Like Water’ back in 2008.
“Music is a major part of this story, and we knew we would need to do some recordings and actually compose and write an original song. Rubén’s friend Steve Alaniz was responsible for coordinating the studio session to record instrumental versions of the Billie Holiday songs the lead actress would sing to. For the one original song, I had written lyrics but it wasn’t until February (a couple weeks before we were to start rehearsal) that my friend Corrinne May was able to finish composing music for it and sent me a digital recording from Singapore. After lots of back-and-forth communication between us, making little adjustments here and there, Corrinne came up with a gorgeous composition.
“Lighting designer Jose Lopez has been lighting my performance art pieces for over 25 years, and he’s someone I know will do a beautiful job. Plus he brings tamales …
“I knew I wanted a 30-foot-wide white scrim upon which to project large-scale imagery to create a sense of place. For imagery, Kamyi Lee was my projection designer, and came up with the archival and invented images that set the locations for various scenes. This was one of the last artistic elements to fall into place, and I was quite worried about finishing over 30 images in roughly a week, but Kamyi is not only good, she’s fast.
“Evan Kodani, who works in the Media Department at JANM, created three video pieces for the play, including a wonderful fake newsreel that opens the entire play. The newsreel establishes the time and circumstances of the story, quickly informing the audience as to who, what, where, when and why. His other two videos were based on verbal descriptions I gave him, and again he did a beautiful job.
“As often is the case, I did final refinement on all the creative elements, to make them fit as perfectly as possible.
“There were some sequences in the play (such as the live-actor shadow scenes) which only existed on paper for three years, and which I didn’t get to see actually come to life until just a couple weeks before we were to preview the play.
“After a very difficult casting process in February (at one point I lost four actors within five days and had to quickly replace them), we finally had a full cast and began rehearsals March 7. At the end of March it became necessary to replace one actor, and Greg Watanabe joined the cast on April 4. In an astounding feat, he memorized all his lines and was ready to step onstage in a mere 11 days! A testament to his utmost professionalism and skill.
“We had a total of one month of rehearsal, and the cast worked extremely well together with full commitment. The chemistry of a cast is always an unknown — what kind of personalities are you going to have in the mix? We have been blessed to have really wonderful folks in our cast and crew. The spirit has been outstanding; the camaraderie, the supportiveness, the kindness, the generosity — all that is icing on the cake of artistic excellence.
“Michael Sasaki, who plays the lead role of Masao Imoto, had his work cut out for him — of the 34 scenes in the play, he is in 29 of them! He really carries the play on his back, and does a heroic job on every level — emotionally, intellectually, physically. At one point I told him, ‘If you can do this, you should never doubt your ability to do anything!’
“While I always see things in the play that could be better, all things considered I am extremely pleased with the result of going from page to stage.”
The cast also includes José A. Garcia, Sachiyo K, Roberta H. Martínez, Isaac Cruz, Scott Golden, Jon Gentry and Pauline Yasuda.
A History Lesson
Many Japanese Americans are familiar with the mass incarceration, but Kwong has found that few know about Bronzeville. “I can’t tell you how many people have no idea about this particular piece of L.A./Little Tokyo/JA history. Including JAs! I can’t specifically remember when I first learned about Little Tokyo becoming Bronzeville, but I’ve known about it for quite a while.
“I consider myself an amateur historian and have been including historical information in my performance work from the very beginning of my career. This stems from the fact that the general public is fairly ignorant about the Asian American experience. If you’re performing in Iowa or Kansas or Mississippi, I’ve found you have to give historical context to your personal stories for them to have impact. Many people have remarked to me that they learned a lot from watching this play, as well as having been entertained.”
Was he able to consult with anyone who had first-hand knowledge of Bronzeville? “In 2018 I did a project called ‘Tales of Little Tokyo,’ for which I interviewed over 50 ‘community stakeholders,’ recording their memories and thoughts about Little Tokyo and turning it into a staged reading. One person who shared her recollections of the Bronzeville era with me was Sande Hashimoto (who has volunteered at JANM for many years). Her stories were very helpful.
“And of course I did lots of reading and historical research online. There aren’t many photos documenting the Bronzeville era, but Alan Miyatake let me use some of his grandfather Toyo’s gorgeous photos of that time.”
The cast got a history lesson up front. “At our very first rehearsal, I gave a PowerPoint presentation to the cast to tell them the story of Bronzeville/Little Tokyo, and Boyle Heights in the mid-1940s. I also shared some YouTube videos about Charlie Parker and the jazz scene of that time. I still wish we could all take a field trip to Little Tokyo, since the play contains several landmarks that still exist.”
Kwong joined the cast because Watanabe — whose credits include the Broadway production of “Allegiance” — had to leave for another play in Minneapolis. “I took over his roles, Mr. Imoto and Rev. Shimizu, midway through the run. The two characters are both Issei men, but almost the inverse of each other: Mr. Imoto is a hard-nosed, demanding, critical, harsh man who chastizes his son Masao relentlessly and is bitterly angry about how racism in the U.S. has landed on him and his family. Rev. Shimizu is a kind, funny, soft-spoken man who tries to understand Masao and what makes him tick, and treats him with kindness.
“I’ve been performing on stages for 33 years, but this is the first time I have ever acted in a play! Actually there’s a lot about this production that is new to me, someone whose background is solo performance art. Usually I’m not pretending to be someone other than who I am, and usually I’m directly speaking to the audience. But in a play like this, the ‘fourth wall’ is firmly in place and you have to imagine the audience isn’t there (at least visually), plus you have to inhabit this other personality convincingly and consistently.
“Very strange, but I’ve really enjoyed the new challenge. I had an assistant director, Corky Dominguez, who helped by giving me feedback on my performance. I would tell him what to look for, where I had uncertainties or questions, and he would let me know how it looked from his perspective.”
Have the audiences been as ethnically diverse as the characters in the play? “I would say our audiences have been wonderfully mixed, but predominantly Asian and Latina/o. Many older-generation folks but some younger folks as well. The feedback has been very positive, and most negative criticism has been limited to the fact that some people feel it’s too long — which I wouldn’t argue with.”
Sunday performances have been followed by discussions with guest speakers giving perspectives from the arts and academia. “Our post-show talkback sessions have been really wonderful, with interesting themes and terrific guests such as Collections Manager Kristen Hayashi from the Japanese American National Museum, filmmaker Robert Shoji, Rubén Guevara himself, and last week Nobuko Miyamoto, Martha Gonzalez, Jahanna Blunt and Martha Nakagawa.
“These sessions have allowed audience members to share their thoughts and responses as well as receive more information and context for the story they watched unfold onstage.
“JANM has been an important partner in this production, and Rubén and I also did a panel there hosted by them and the Museum of Latin American Art (and live-streamed via YouTube). We had a great discussion moderated by Kristen Hayashi about the themes, topics and history addressed in the play.”
Will there be another transition, from stage to screen? “From the very beginning I have always envisioned this story as a feature film. I think it would make a killer movie, and I’m ready to adapt it into a screenplay! Or maybe an eight part mini-series…”
Tickets are $30 general, $25 for students and seniors, $20 for Boyle Heights residents, $25 for groups of 10 or more, $20 for groups of 20 or more. For more information, call (323) 263-7684 or visit www.casa0101.org.
Concurrently with the performances, the Jean Deleage Art Gallery, located in the lobby of Casa 0101 Theater, and JANM are presenting an art exhibit, “Bronzeville: Modernity, Race, and the Search to Belong,” featuring the works of Bryan Ida, Laura Vazquez Rodriguez, Sandra Vista, Aydee Martinez and Brandy Maya Healy. Curated by Jimmy Centeno with the help of assistant researcher Shelley Johnson II, the exhibit binds together the multiple contradictions and complexities of identity in a racialized modern society. It can be viewed prior to performances of the play and during regular gallery hours, Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Free parking is available on several streets surrounding the theater. Free parking is also available on Friday and Saturday only at the Boyle Heights City Hall Parking Lot, 2130 E. First St. (enter from Chicago Street). The lot is closed on Sunday. Metro Gold Line stations are located on First Street in Boyle Heights at Soto Street and at Boyle Street (Mariachi Plaza), within walking distance to the theater.