By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
CioCio from “Madama Butterfly,” Kim from “Miss Saigon” and Kumiko from “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” confront racist and sexist stereotypes of Asian women in Preston Choi’s “This Is Not a True Story,” a comedy presented by Artists at Play in association with Latino Theater Company.
Directed by Reena Dutt, the show runs through Oct. 15 at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles.
Julia Cho plays CioCio from Puccini’s 1904 opera. She gives up everything for an American naval officer, Pinkerton, but he goes back to the U.S. and returns with his American wife, having abandoned CioCio and their child. She commits ritual suicide.
Zandi De Jesus plays Kim from the 1985 Broadway musical, which was based on “Madama Butterfly.” During the Vietnam War she falls in love with an American GI, Chris, but he abandons her and later returns with his American wife. Kim commits suicide so that Chris will take their son, Tam, with him.
Rosie Narasaki plays Kumiko from the 2014 movie, which starred Rinko Kikuchi and was based on an urban legend about a real-life person. Takako Konishi was found dead in 2001 after traveling from Japan to North Dakota. According to the myth, which gained popularity online, she believed that “Fargo” was a true story and was searching for the buried cash from the movie. In reality, Takako had visited Fargo with her former lover, an American who was married, and went back there to commit suicide.
The understudies, who also had an opportunity to perform, are Darica Louie (CioCio), Chacha Tahng (Kim) and Jo Yuan (Kumiko/Takako).
In the three-character play, the “tragic heroines” meet and try to find a way to break the endless cycle in which they are trapped.
Narasaki, whose previous credits include “Little Women” with Playwrights’ Arena and “Two Mile Hollow” with Artists at Play, discussed her involvement with the current show:
“I wasn’t involved with the development, though I have worked with Artists at Play a lot in the past, both as an actor and a writer. I’d seen a couple of the readings of ‘This Is Not a True Story,’ so I was excited when they asked me to audition!”
Regarding stereotypical roles, she said, “I’ve been fairly lucky, especially in theatre. I’ve worked primarily with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) or Asian American theatre companies, which has been amazing. That said, I’ve probably played more than my fair share of tech geeks and doctors in TV/commercial roles.”
Narasaki has unique insights as both of her parents, Ken Narasaki and Sharon Omi, are long-time stage and screen actors. Her dad is also a playwright.
“I still remember sitting with my mom in the parking lot at an audition while she went back and forth on whether she could go in or not,” she recalled. “The role was for a waiter who spoke in broken English in a wholly fabricated, super racist accent. One of the lines was ‘No drinky!’
“She eventually ended up declining the audition, but the experience stuck in my mind. It showed me how many other factors are at play when it comes to racist roles — sure, most of us would like to decline them based on principle alone, but there’s also your relationship with your agent/manager to consider, as well as the casting director. And your bills, of course!”
Compared to CioCio and Kim, Kumiko is a newcomer in popular culture, and she shares similarities with them but is different at the same time.
“One thing that’s interesting about Kumiko/Takako is that she’s kind of the inverse of the other two characters,” Narasaki observed. “The ‘real’ version of herself killed herself and had an American boyfriend, while the ‘fake’ version was on a quest to find the treasure from ‘Fargo.’
“But even so, the ‘fake’ version was still written by two white men, and I think that’s very apparent from her characterization in the film. And it brings nuance to the concept of an Asian woman killing herself over a white man that we see in ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Miss Saigon.’ With Takako, it’s pretty clear that there were a lot of other factors at play in her decision to kill herself.”
To prepare for the role, Narasaki was able to do extensive research. “We were really lucky that we had Katherine Chou as a dramaturg for this play. She compiled a dramaturgical packet full of background info on all three characters and their source materials. So I watched ‘Kumiko the Treasure Hunter’ and then read all of the interviews with the two writer-directors, the Zellner brothers, that Katherine compiled.
“That provided a lot of insight into their characterization of Kumiko, which was so interesting to compare with the background of the real-life Takako Konishi.”
Having gotten feedback from audiences since the play opened on Sept. 16, Narasaki said, “A lot of people, myself included, find the message of the play to be very empowering! I love the concept of these characters finding their own agency through storytelling and writing.”
An “Unrivaled” Playwright
Narasaki is also a playwright. Her play “Unrivaled,” which explores the relationship between Heian era (794-1185) women authors Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, recently had its world premiere at Boston Court Pasadena after winning the 2022 L.A. New Play Project Award.
“I was inspired to write ‘Unrivaled’ after taking a couple of courses on Japanese literature in college,” she explained. “I read ‘The Tale of Genji’ in one and ‘The Pillow Book’ in the other, and became fascinated with these two writers and the time period they lived in. Their writing feels almost anachronistically modern; it just leaps off the page! So I thought it would be fun to write a story about them where they essentially talk like millennials (aka me).
“I was lucky enough to develop it with a lot of different theatre companies. I started it in a writing group at EST/LA, then worked on it with The Road Theatre Company, Artists at Play, and the Boston Court. Each reading and workshop got it a little closer, so I was feeling pretty solid once Playwrights’ Arena and the Boston Court were ready to produce it.
“And yeah, I was kind of interested in acting in it. I kept joking to everyone, ‘Why else would I write a play with three roles for Asian American women in their 20s and 30s?’ But it was ultimately decided that it would be best for me to focus on the script, as this was its world premiere. Maybe in another production someday!”
The cast included Katie Kitani as Murasaki Shikibu and Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz as Sei Shonagon. The director was Margaret Shigeko Starbuck.
Currently, Narasaki is working on a commission for Playwrights’ Arena. “They have this project with UCLA called Golden Tongues where they create adaptations of Spanish Golden Age plays. I’m also a bit late on an educational play for the Center Theatre Group Library Readings series, as well as a short film (for a friend) and a pilot (for my manager).”
Performances of “This Is Not a True Story” are on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through Oct. 15. Tickets range from $22 to $48. Parking is available for $8 with box office validation at Joe’s Parking structure, 530 S. Spring St. (immediately south of the theater). For more information and to purchase tickets, call (213) 489-0994 or go to www.latinotheaterco.org.