By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Patti Yasutake, who has gone to distant worlds as a cast member of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” is now traveling back in time to Louisiana in 1987 — and she is thoroughly enjoying the trip.
She is part of the all-Asian cast of Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” now playing at East West Players in Little Tokyo until Oct. 6. The play is set at Truvy’s Beauty Salon in Chinquapin, La., where we learn of six women’s trials and tribulations over the course of nearly three years.
One of the conflicts is between Yasutake’s character, M’Lynn, and her daughter Shelby, who wants to have a baby even though her medical condition would make childbirth life-threatening.
“I feel she rolls with the punches but doesn’t defer to them,” Yasutake says of M’Lynn. “She manages life as opposed to living it. She challenges her daughter to be strong and independent, even though she’s fiercely protective of her. I see her as a feminist. The ’70s was the women’s movement, so the ’80s was figuring out how to do it all — be a successful wife, mother, and career woman. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, M’Lynn struggles and succeeds juggling it all.”
The 1989 movie based on the play earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for Julia Roberts (as Shelby) and a Golden Globe nomination for Sally Field (as M’Lynn). A 2012 made-for-TV remake, set in the present with an all-African American cast, featured Queen Latifah as M’Lynn and Condola Rashad as Shelby.
In the play, unlike the films, the husbands and boyfriends are mentioned but never seen, Yasutake notes. “The beauty of the play is that all scenes occur only in the beauty shop. So the live audience is invited into these women’s clubhouse or sanctuary and can experience inclusion in that privacy first-hand. And when it’s played in 1987, the need for that safe haven is all the more significant, since ‘outside,’ race and gender roles were more oppressive back then.
“To have a place to go and literally let your hair down — having the freedom to speak both your mind and your heart, having the comfort of knowing you’ll get care and support and help to get through life’s little and big events — it all speaks to valuing our humanity … In this beauty shop, where the women go to enhance their physical beauty, they come out realizing and appreciating their greater inner beauty.”
She has seen the movies but is not influenced by them. “The relationships are universal – mother-daughter, girlfriends – so what an actor brings personally is what defines it. My interactions with the other characters are based wholly on the other actresses who embody them.”
Asians in the South
Yasutake emphasizes that the EWP production is not an example of non-traditional casting — casting people of color in classic plays, from Shakespeare to “The Sound of Music” — because Asian Americans have been living in the South for a long time.
Cast member Lovelle Liquigan (Annelle) was born in South Carolina and her cousin from the Philippines lives in Arkansas. “There are large Filipino communities in the South,” Yasutake explains. “Like Annelle, they worked their way up the ladder to make a life for themselves and their children.”
Hiwa Bourne (Truvy), who teaches Hawaiian and Tahitian dance, is the daughter of a Caucasian mother from Alabama and a Hawaiian/Chinese father. “Hiwa’s warm Hawaiian hospitality perfectly suits Truvy’s quality to make her client feel right at home,” Yasutake says.
“Ruth Coughlin, who plays Shelby, has a Japanese Peruvian mother and Caucasian father,” Yasutake adds. “Once I saw she was cast, I knew I had married a tall Caucasian Southerner. Many from the Arkansas camps ended up in surrounding states and intermarried. In fact, my relatives were in Rohwer.”
Minor changes were submitted to the playwright’s attorneys, but Harling was not available to give approval due to the death of his mother, who was the inspiration for M’Lynn.
“Some changes submitted included Clairee’s last name being Matsu instead of Marmillion, and besides bringing her ‘annual pecan tassies’ she brings maki-zushi,” Yasutake recalls. “Dian Kobayashi, who plays Clairee, is Japanese American and brings a JA sense of reserve and decorum, yet coupled with an easy-going Hawaiian charm and wit, which is classic Clairee.
“Although words could not be changed, there are also design references. Hiwa Bourne … enjoys her Truvy wearing flowers in her hair, plus she made the ti-leaf lei hanging in her shop. There are other set decorations that suggest culturally influenced gifts the women would have given her, such as Japanese dolls and maneki neko. Some clothes suggest culture, such as my aloha-type camp shirts or the Chinese jewelry worn by Ouiser, whom Karen Huie plays as a Chinese self-made immigrant.
“What I find authentically resonates the most is how our cultural heritages not only suit our characters but deepen the dynamics in the play. For example, my character as a mother fights for her daughter to be strong to compensate for her medical limitations. But when I consider her wanting her biracial daughter to especially be strong enough to handle the bigotry she would encounter back then in the South, then that fuels my drive as her mother.”
To speak with a Northern Louisiana accent, she worked with a dialectician and vocal coach on her own, then with a vocal coach brought in during rehearsals. “We also studied some terrific interview and pronunciation tapes of local women from that area that my original coach provided for reference.”
Yasutake credits director Laurie Woolery, who is making her EWP debut, for putting the cast together. “Not knowing anyone’s personal or cultural background, she cast perceptively with our essences and personalities to immediately suit the characters and their relationships. Then we found all our individual cultural heritages perfectly supported each of our characters being of that particular heritage.
“At our first read-through, the chemistry between the actors/characters was immediate and vibrant, so it was exciting. Chemistry is a vital issue in the work in order to best express character relationships, so when you find those connections at the outset, it inspires the rest of the process. Laurie is especially tuned into actors’ instincts and heart, so it speaks to her talent that she cast a company of actors who all share and respect those same values …
“We found just enough time during rehearsals and occasionally afterwards to socialize, since we appreciate that nurturing the connections and chemistry feeds the work. But there was a lot of outside homework and prep to do. Now that we’re settled into the run, we’re catching up and juggling the rest of our lives, so maybe once a week we might hang a bit.”
From “Star Trek” to “NCIS”
Her involvement with “Steel Magnolias” is a homecoming of sorts — she worked at EWP with the late actor and artistic director Mako for six years. Yasutake is among the EWP alumni who have made their mark on the big and small screens, including John Cho, Kal Penn, Daniel Dae Kim, Masi Oka, Amy Hill and Tamlyn Tomita.
If she gets recognized in public, it is usually for her role as Nurse Alyssa Ogawa in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” She appeared in 16 episodes, including the series finale in 1994, and in two movies, “Star Trek: Generations” and “Star Trek: First Contact.” Like other cast members, she is often invited to conventions.
“Last year I did the huge Las Vegas convention, which I usually do every other year,” Yasutake says. “This year I attended FedCon in Germany, the biggest in Europe, which was great fun. I met a promoter from England there, who wanted me at their event, so we’ll see. I’m not on the convention circuit … I do something annually or every other year.
“Fans ask all sorts of things – mostly about behind-the-scenes experiences and working with the other actors, especially any funny moments. Others ask about my acting work – the craft itself or other projects. Sometimes they’ll ask personal questions like favorite this or that. But fans are known for being respectful of our privacy, because for them it’s not about us personally, but our being part of Star Trek …
“Away from conventions, that courtesy carries. I sometimes find out later I was recognized, so I’m told it happens more than I realize. While I was on the show, it was more spoken. Usually just looks, smiles and a few words, especially, ‘I know I don’t seem like the typical Star Trek fan, but…’ So I’d point out they actually are the typical Star Trek fan. Those who dress up are the different and very special level of fandom.”
She adds, “One of the coolest things ever was getting my own action figure! It’s a whole other level of feeling part of the sci-fi, especially Star Trek, universe. Though it remains a question why I have such a huge smile.” The figure was released about 15 years after the conclusion of “Next Generation.”
Regarding the two latest movies directed by J.J. Abrams, which feature younger versions of the characters from the original series, she says, “I’m extremely pleased that the new incarnations are engaging current audiences to appreciate and become part of the spirit, personality, and especially ideas of all the Star Treks.”
Her numerous TV credits include “The Closer,” “The Unit,” “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Boston Legal,” and “The Young and the Restless.”
She got a kick out of being a guest star on “FlashForward” in 2009, “not only because it was thought-provoking sci-fi, but the director (Michael Nankin) had also studied with the acting teacher with whom I studied, the renowned Uta Hagen, which made the creative process all the more fun.”
A 2007 episode of “Cold Case” titled “Family 8108” was “the most special,” Yasutake says, “because rarely does prime-time network TV focus on our personal experiences, let alone our Japanese American history. It was great playing a daughter who personally needs to find out why her mother is shut down, then uncovers the emotional effects of their internment camp history.” The cast also included Kim Miyori, Ian Anthony Dale, Keone Young, David Huynh, Ron Yuan and Mia Korf.
In an episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles” that aired Tuesday, Yasutake played NTSB Chief Howard. The director was her former co-star Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander Riker on “Next Generation.” “It was delightful to work with him again, plus Chris O’Donnell and everyone there was super nice,” she says.
The episode can be viewed online at www.cbs.com.
East West Players is located at 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. Remaining showtimes: Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Senior/student discounts and group rates available. Info: (213) 625-7000, www.eastwestplayers.org
At East West Players, Patti Yasutake (who was in her 20s) and Clyde Kusatsu played an elderly couple in Philip Kan Gotanda’s “The Avocado Kid.” Kusatsu later had a recurring role as Adm. Nakamura on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Yasutake and Kusatsu both appeared in the show’s final episode, but not in the same scenes.
Yasutake appeared in a 1985 episode of “T.J. Hooker,” a cop show starring William Shatner, best known as Capt. Kirk from the original “Star Trek.”
Yasutake and Gedde Watanabe played Umeki and Kaz Kazuhiro in the 1986-87 sitcom “Gung Ho,” starring Scott Bakula (Capt. Archer on “Star Trek: Enterprise”). The sitcom was based on the 1986 movie of the same name about a Japanese car company taking over an American plant. The movie starred Michael Keaton and featured Yasutake, Watanabe, Sab Shimono and Rodney Kageyama in supporting roles. Shimono and Kageyama also appeared in the TV series.
In 1991, Yasutake appeared in the TV movie “Fatal Friendship” with Kate Mulgrew (Capt. Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager”). Also, Yasutake and Robert Beltran (Commander Chakotay on “Voyager”) portrayed a couple in Luis Valdez’s play “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1986.
In the 1996 movie “Star Trek: First Contact,” Yasutake had a scene with Alfre Woodard, who this year was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Ouiser in the 2012 version of “Steel Magnolias.”