By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
UNIVERSAL CITY.—East West Players marked its 44th anniversary Monday evening, with the annual Visionary Awards gala and silent auction, held at the Universal Hilton.
The black-tie event was a star-studded affair, with some of the most celebrated Asian American talent in attendance. In addition to serving as a fundraiser for EWP’s projects and programs, the gala is a chance to recognize those performers who over the past year have helped to raise awareness and visibility of the Asian Pacific American community.
This year’s honorees were musician and artist Mike Shinoda, Fox vice president for alternative entertainment Wenda Fong and Pixar Animation Studios, along with the star of their feature, “Up,” Jordan Nagai, who received the Breakout Performance Award.
“I hope the success of ‘Up’ will lead to more leading roles for Asian American artists,” said the 10-year-old Nagai, who starred as Wilderness Explorer Russell in the animated film that was nominated for a best picture Oscar.
Somewhat shy and reserved onstage, Nagai began his career in print work at the age of 1 and has also done voice work on “The Simpsons.” He said the best part of making “Up” was playing foosball and and other games between recording takes.
In accepting his Visionary Award, Shinoda said he doesn’t set about his work with any particular agenda in mind.
“I don’t concentrate on raising awareness of Asian Americans, it’s just what I do, it’s simply me,” Shinoda said, visibly touched by the honor.
Shinoda also referred to his admiration of actress Tamlyn Tomita, one of the evening’s emcees, and one of her best-known films.
“Was anyone else here in junior high when ‘Karate Kid II’ came out?” he asked, which drew applause and laughs. “Yeah, that was really awesome.”
Accepting the Visionary Award for Pixar was “Up” production designer Ricky Nierva, who was the lead character designer for “Monsters Inc.” and led character art for “Finding Nemo.” Nierva said that everyone at Pixar was extremely proud of casting an Asian American in the lead, alongside a senior citizen character, who was voiced by Ed Asner.
Fong, who boasts credits on more than 200 television shows, is a former president of East West Players and a co-founder and chairperson of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. She dedicated her Visionary Award to the hard work of her parents and fought back tears when thanking her husband.
Before his remarks on the topic of fundraising, “Star Trek” legend George Takei received wishes for his 73rd birthday Tuesday, with a rousing sing-a-long led by Tomita and co-emcee Lea Salonga.
The onstage program included live performances by broadway veterans Joan Almedilla and Jennie Slema, both of whom are starring in EWP’s latest production, “Road To Saigon.” A crowd-pleasing performance was presented by the urban dance crew Kaba Modern, who rose to national fame on the show, “America’s Best Dance Crew.”
EWP also seized the moment to introduce the lineup for their 45th season, which will include “Wrinkles,” by South Pasadena playwright Paul Kikuchi and the hip-hop musical “Krunk Fu Battle Battle.”