By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
COSTA MESA — Carla Ching’s “Fast Company,” now playing at the South Coast Rep, is about the Kwans, a “crew” or group of con artists. It’s a story of relationships between siblings and between mother and child, but is more reminiscent of “The Sting” than of “The Joy Luck Club.”
The matriarch is Mable, played by Emily Kuroda, known to many for her role on “Gilmore Girls.” Her children are H (Nelson Lee), the “fixer” who sets the stage for a con; Francis (Lawrence Kao), a “roper” who identifies the “mark” or intended victim; and daughter Blue (Jackie Chung), who dreams of putting together the score of the decade.
The action centers around a very valuable comic book — Action Comics No. 1, which features the first appearance of Superman. Blue and H are supposed to use it in a con, showing the buyer the genuine article but later replacing it with a copy, but H — who is deep in debt — makes off with the real one.
Mable, Francis and Blue try to figure out how to get it back. Later, when Mable takes possession of the comic book, her children try to outwit the master.
Mable is not the sentimental type; when her kids were little, she abandoned each one at a faraway location to see if they could figure out how to get home. And she swears a lot —it’s the most profanity Kuroda has ever used in a role.
Asked how she sees her character, she explains, “I like Mable because she’s a survivor. She’s had a tough life and raised three kids as a single mother. She would do anything for her kids and just wants to protect them from the pains of the world. Okay, she’s a bit unconventional and she takes it to the extreme, but that’s because her love for her children is extreme.”
Theater-goers seem to feel the same way. “I wasn’t sure — I thought they may hate me because I kinda messed up my kids, but the audience has been pretty positive,” Kuroda says. “Hey, Mable meant well!”
While the audience is kept guessing about who is conning whom, “I think the story is about a family who deep down cares about each other, and that runs throughout the play in odd ways,” she says. “When my son calls me because my daughter is in trouble, I’m there for her within 24 hours … I abuse her once there, but that’s to toughen her up.”
Another underlying idea is that we all con other people to get them to do what we want. Kuroda says she wishes she could do that better in real life.
To prepare for the role, Kuroda watched some of the works that inspired the playwright, including the movies “The Grifters” and “Ocean’s Eleven” and the BBC TV show “Hustle.”
This is her first time working with Ching and the three young actors. “What a perfect cast! We seem to click, and I felt a connection to them from the first week,” she recalls. “They are all so amazing and I am so lucky to perform with them. Carla, the playwright, has a wonderful quiet intensity and offered insights to the characters throughout the process.”
Kuroda adds, “The visuals in the play are amazing. You should see what the crew does backstage — it’s short of impossible. Three women and a guy are back there, running, moving palettes, flying scenery in and out, moving huge set pieces around. They are the real show. Every night I watch in awe. Every night I applaud them.”
She has previously worked with South Coast Rep on “Our Town,” “Ballad of Yachiyo” and the Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of “Dogeaters.” Her castmates are making their SCR debuts. Director Bart DeLorenzo also directed “Doctor Cerberus,” “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment,” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at SCR.
Stage and Screen
Kuroda has won numerous honors for her stage performances, including Dramalogue Awards for “The Golden Gate,” written and directed by Stephen Sachs; “Visitors from Nagasaki,” written by Perry Miyake and directed by Betty Muramoto; “The Maids,” written by Jean Genet and directed by Alberto Isaac (Kuroda’s husband); “Ikebana,” written by Alice Tuan and directed by Lisa Peterson; and “Minamata,” written and directed by Reza Abdoh.
She won a Garland Award and was nominated for an L.A. Ovation Award for “Straight as a Line,” written by Luis Alfaro and directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, and won an Entertainment Today Best Actress Award for “Winter People,” written and directed by Chay Yew.
She’s also done her share of musicals, including “Gypsy” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Good Company Players in her native Fresno and “Into the Woods” and “Pacific Overtures” at L.A.’s East West Players.
Kuroda says she doesn’t have a favorite play. “Every play I’ve done is a part of me. I have enjoyed and grown from each and every one, and have been lucky enough to have worked with some of the most talented, inspiring artists in the nation. I’ve done the groundbreaking plays of our famous Asian American playwrights Philip Gotanda, David Henry Hwang, Ken Narasaki and Prince Gomolvilas, among others.”
Her affiliation with EWP goes back to 1978, when she did a play called “Frogs.” She knew Tim Dang, now EWP’s artistic director, when he was fresh out of college and worked with him on such plays as “A Chorus Line,” which also featured B.D. Wong. “Those were the good old days,” she says.
Kuroda will be back at EWP next month in “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back,” the third installment of a comic trilogy.
Her TV roles include the one for which she is best known: Mrs. Kim, mother of Lane Kim (Keiko Agena), on “Gilmore Girls.” “I am still recognized quite often,” Kuroda says. “I think it’s because it is still airing on Family Channel every day. I was at Sundance and hiked to the top of Mount Timpanogos and I hear ‘Mrs. Kim!’ It made me happy.”
“(Series creator) Amy Sherman-Pallidino is a genius, and she weaved a beautiful character over eight years, and I enjoyed every crazy minute of it,” Kuroda adds. “I watched my daughter grow up, from first date to the prom, to marriage and motherhood. On her (on-screen) wedding day I already had such a connection with her that I couldn’t stop crying …
“Mrs. Kim was strict and never had a desire to have a buddy relationship with her daughter. Her role was to raise her daughter to succeed in this world, and she did. Lane Kim didn’t have premarital relations because she couldn’t get her mom’s voice out of her head — Mama Kim did good.”
Kuroda and Agena have since worked together on a number of projects, including Narasaki’s “No-No Boy” in Santa Monica, directed by Isaac.
As for the possibility of a “Gilmore Girls” reunion, perhaps as a TV movie, Kuroda can only say, “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
She has also been seen in such TV shows as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Six Feet Under” and “King of Queens,” and such movies as “Minority Report,” “Red” and “Shopgirl.”
Other regular or recurring characters include the obnoxious maid Su Ho on “Under One Roof,” a sitcom starring rapper Flavor Flav, and the mother of Teri Lee (comedian Margaret Cho) on “Drop Dead Diva.”
Kuroda describes Cho as “one of the most giving, goofy, honest people I have had the honor to work with. I first worked with her years ago in an independent film, ‘Broken Words’ … I chose not to go with her imitation of her mom. I mean, how can I compete with that? But I went in with an honest love for my daughter — with judgment and criticism of her, but for her own good so she can succeed in this f’d-up world.”
Thanks to “Fast Company,” those who enjoyed Kuroda’s “tough love” on TV can now experience it live on stage.
“Fast Company” is playing at the South Coast Rep, 655 Town Center Dr. in Costa Mesa, until Oct. 27. Evening performances: Sunday, Tuesday through Saturday at 7:45 p.m. (no evening show on Oct. 27). Matinees: Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. ASL-interpreted show on Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $22. For reservations, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org.