‘Nisei Widow’ Tells All

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Jeanne Sakata as Tomi gets a hula lesson from Kimo, played by Tui Asau, in East West Players’ "The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back." (Photo by Michael Lamont)

Jeanne Sakata as Tomi gets a hula lesson from Kimo, played by Tui Asau, in East West Players’ “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back.” (Photo by Michael Lamont)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Jeanne Sakata is happy to be reunited with her fellow widows in “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back,” now being performed at East West Players through Dec. 8.

The cast — Sakata as Tomi, Takayo Fischer as Sumi, Emily Kuroda as Hana and June Kyoko Lu as Betty — first appeared in “The Nisei Widows Club” in 2003, then did a sequel, “The Nisei Widows Club: Holiday on Thin Ice,” in 2004.

In the first play, Sakata said, “There was a man (Sab Shimono) who was a widower that wanted to join the club. But since we were a women-only club, we rejected his application for membership. Then he tries to sneak his way into the club by dressing up as a geisha-like fortune teller … He shows up at the door and offers to conduct a séance so we can talk to our husbands who have passed on, so hilarity ensues …

“The second one was a Christmas show. I like to call it Japanese American vaudeville hour … The Nisei widows were putting on a Christmas show in Little Tokyo at East West Players. So there were all these acts that came in. It was sort of like watching ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ … We had an ukulele group from the church come and sing, we had rappers and hip-hop dancers … I sang ‘Santa Baby’ with the actors that played the horses in ‘Equus.’”

All three plays were written by “Betty Tokudani” — EWP Producing Artistic Director Tim Dang, EWP Arts Education Director Marilyn Tokuda, and artist Denise Iketani. “This is our last one, supposedly,” said Sakata. “That’s what Tim says, unless someone can convince him otherwise.”

Jeanne Sakata (Photo by Lia Chang)

Jeanne Sakata (Photo by Lia Chang)

The latest chapter is the most significant one for Sakata’s character, a former Nisei Week Queen and high-maintenance houseguest. “The circumstances of this play really demand that she grow and change, because in the first two plays she never faced a tragedy …. In this play, she’s facing the sudden death of her son Frank, who was a police officer … (For) Tomi, who’s normally a very fun-loving, very flirty kind of woman … it sort of plunges her into a whole new space where she has to deal with loss and with grieving and with suddenly being alone in the house.

“That’s a whole new journey for her to take. So it’s been really great to take that character and deepen her with the experience that she has to go through and the growth that has to come out of that.”

Robert Isaac Lee, who played Frank in the first play, died in 2004 at age 48. “It was so sad,” Sakata recalled. “I think that the circumstances we all faced in losing Bob the actor was what inspired Tim to take the Nisei widows into a new place where they’re dealing with death and loss. And in the play it isn’t just the death of Tomi’s son that we’re grappling with, it’s the death of a lot of friends and a lot of pillars of the community too … such as Sen. (Daniel) Inouye and Frances Hashimoto and George Aratani. So I think that I like this ‘Nisei Widows Club’ best because it’s the one … that has the most depth to it.”

She admitted that finding the balance between comedy and tragedy hasn’t been easy. “You have to play the truth of someone who has lost a son, and at the same time because it’s a comedy, you can’t stay there. You have to find the humor in a situation like that. So it’s a challenge to let the audience know early on in the play that it’s okay to laugh, that the widows are resilient and strong ladies and even though Tomi is temporarily sidelined with her sadness, she wants to get right back in there and try to make a new life for herself …

“Tomi is having to face her real feelings of sadness and loss, which I think only actually happens when she goes to Hawaii and the hula master (played by Tui Asau) teaches the Nisei widows how their personal stories must come through the dance … I think that Tomi only really faces her grief head-on when she is actually experiencing this hula.”

To Sakata, the theme of the play is “how loss is so difficult and yet we have to try to get through it as best we can and really cherish and treasure the life that we do have … There’s this saying that we can’t control when we come into the earth, we can’t control the day that we leave, but we can try and make the most of everything in between … I hope that’s coming across.”

Regarding similarities between her and her character, Sakata said, “I think I do have Tomi’s passion and great appetite for life and, like her, I love to laugh and have a great time. And like her in this play, I have had to struggle with and deal with an unexpected death in the family, and the journey of grief and recovery that goes with loss. But I would say the similarities end there. She’s by nature a man-chaser and a flirt, and can be pretty brazen. And though I’m not like that at all, it’s great fun to play her.”

She has much affection for all of the characters. “Each one of these ladies is sort of like a Nisei archetype to me. They’re all ladies I recognize from my own community when I grew up in Watsonville. I feel like I know these ladies … I (also) think they’re universal characters that even go beyond the Japanese American community. We’ve been compared a lot to ‘The Golden Girls,’ and I think that’s a really great parallel.”

Sakata has worked with Fischer, Kuroda and Lu on other projects, both at EWP and elsewhere. “It’s really a joy to be back together because it’s been a while since we did the Christmas show. It’s really nice to know too that the characters are so loved in the community that people would want to see more of them … The characters really rang a bell and hit a chord with the community.”

Working with director Amy Hill, who has extensive experience as a stage and screen actress, much of it in comedy, was also a pleasure, Sakata said.

An added bonus was learning hula from noted choreographer Keali’i Ceballos for the final scene. “The lessons that we had with him were just so wonderful,” Sakata said. “I enjoyed them so much, and I learned so much about the hula that I didn’t know before. So the last scene is really a joy to perform for me because it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn … and I got my opportunity with this play.”

Co-presented by the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Japanese American National Museum and AARP, “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back” is playing at the David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St. in Little Tokyo. Showtimes: Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information, call (213) 625-7000 or visit www.eastwestplayers.org.

Ovation for ‘Red’

Sakata won the Ovation Award for her role in another EWP production, Chay Yew’s “Red.” “The father in the play is a Beijing opera star who specializes in playing women,” she explained. “What happens is when Mao comes into power and things go badly with the Cultural Revolution, Madame Mao turns against the character, who’s named Master Hua …

Jeanne Sakata as Master Hua in Chay Yew's "Red."

Jeanne Sakata as Master Hua in Chay Yew’s “Red.”

“But it’s really a play about a father and a daughter who love each other but who end up on opposite sides of the Cultural Revolution, and about the anguish and disorientation and eventually the desire for reunion on the part of the daughter. So it’s a very sad, tragic play but it’s also uplifting.”

Sakata, who had to learn Beijing opera movement and singing for the role, was recognized for playing Master Hua. “That was really a thrill because I was just so concerned about people believing that I was a man, especially here in my home community where people know that I’m a woman, and I was … so obsessed with taking people on that journey with me, hoping they would buy me as a man, that I never really thought about awards.”

She added that when she did the play in Singapore, “I was really pleased when I was told a lot of people thought I was a man. I cut my hair short, I had these spectacles and I got voice training to lower my voice down to the chest level … I studied certain men, how they moved, and made my movements more angular and economical … It was a real thrill to play that role … frightening, terrifying, but thrilling.”

Another favorite play at EWP was Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” in which Sakata played opera legend Maria Callas. “The play was about her teaching master classes at Julliard, after she had really lost her voice and was trying to find a way to get back on stage. So she was in a very painful period of her life. She had also lost hope of marrying … the love of her life, Aristotle Onassis, because he had just married Jacqueline Kennedy … She’s teaching these young students with their whole careers ahead of them …

“My husband said he never saw me derive more joy out of playing a role, and yet it was such a sad story. She ended up very alone at the end of her life … But again, as an actor it’s our great privilege to learn about and to enter worlds that we normally would not have access to.”

One of Sakata’s first roles was as Himiko in Velina Hasu Houston’s “Tea,” which is about Japanese war brides living on an Army base. Because her character committed suicide and is watching her friends as a ghost, “there’s a deeply spiritual aspect to playing the role that I really loved.”

She also enjoyed playing a world-famous Chinese chef in Kenneth Lin’s “Po’ Boy Tango” both at EWP and Northlight Theatre in Chicago.

Sakata has worked on new plays at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, including Don Nguyen’s “Red Flamboyant” and Jiehae Park’s “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo,” as well as Daniel Akiyama’s “A Cage of Fireflies” at Sundance. “I love being part of new play development … I love the excitement of seeing the script come to life, and love being part of the process … As a new writer myself (author of the one-man show ‘Hold These Truths’), I know first-hand just how beautiful a thing it is when an actor says the words that you wrote and brings them to life in a way that you never imagined,” she said.

Jeanne Sakata as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's "Master Class."

Jeanne Sakata as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class.”

One of her favorite TV roles was on “Threat Matrix,” in which she guest-starred as a Cambodian woman in the U.S. whose son visits Cambodia and is unable to return because of post-9/11 security policies. “This episode was about this woman desperately wanting to reconnect with her son. The son in the end dies, so she’s left all alone in the states. It was a very rich role.”

Other screen roles Sakata has enjoyed include playing Olivia Munn’s mother in the movie “The Babymakers,” playing Suzy Nakamura’s mother, with Shimono as the father, in the YOMYOMF (You Offend Me, You Offend My Family) online series “Sex & Marriage,” and guest-starring on Tyler Perry’s sitcom “Meet the Browns” as an old flame of the Colonel (Tony Vaughn). The latter character was “really refreshing because she broke the stereotype in that she was a restaurant owner, she owned a chain of restaurants, but they were soul food restaurants.”

But Sakata continues to feel that good TV and film roles are more the exception than the rule in Hollywood. “A lot of Asian American actors like to go back to the stage because the roles are so much more multidimensional and challenging … There’s more and more Asian American actors now who are featured as series regulars, so it’s encouraging, but at the same time there’s still a lot of stereotyping and a lot of racism in the industry that we have to constantly fight … It’s like things get better and then things get worse, and then things get better and things get worse …

“So you just have to try to commit to that trajectory of furthering, furthering, furthering how we’re portrayed in the media.”

For more information on Sakata’s projects, visit www.jeannesakata.com.

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