INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Got the Write Stuff? Prove It

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GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

I recently wrote about community organization CAPE or Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and its board chair, Kevin Iwashina. I noted that one of the things I liked about CAPE was its New Writers Fellowship, which rewards up-and-coming Asian Pacific American writers.

In the decades-long struggle to get more and better representation and depictions of Asian Pacific Americans and Asians on the big and small screens, as well as the stage, much focus has been on inclusion and casting. Pushing the entertainment industry on these issues is necessary, of course, and worthwhile.

Still, when there’s little to nothing to work with, — that is, source material for movies and TV — that includes the aforementioned groups (and other under- and unrepresented communities) to begin with, we can see one of the underlying causes for the dearth of roles.

Case in point: Before there was the movie “The Joy Luck Club,” which had at least eight great roles for Asian American actresses (not so much for the men, but that’s another issue), there was Amy Tan’s novel of the same name, from which a screenplay was adapted.

To my mind, if there are no scripts (and books to be adapted into scripts) featuring, say, Asian American characters, then you have one of the main sources for this problem of inclusion in TV, movies, et al. And who is most likely to write about people of Asian heritage? People of Asian heritage.

It’s not a guarantee, of course. Asians are not restricted to writing about Asians, just as white folks are not restricted to writing about white folks. But there is that adage “write what you know,” so there is a greater likelihood that Asian Americans would write stuff that includes Asian Americans.

A book I wrote about a few years ago, “The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford, was well-received after publication and seemed like a shoo-in to be adapted into a movie. (In a nutshell, “Hotel” is a coming-of-age tale about unrequited love between a Chinese American boy and a Japanese American girl, set in WWII and the present day.) When I did a follow-up interview with Ford, who is of Chinese heritage on his father’s side, he said he got some interest from movie producers, but they wanted to change some of these very ethnic-specific main roles from Asian American to white American. He said no, thankfully.

However, while there is as of yet no movie based on this property, I can report that Community Asian Theatre of the Sierras in Grass Valley, Calif. in September held auditions for a stage adaptation of the book, with the play to run in its spring 2015 season. Maybe that will provide the necessary springboard for the play to jump to the big screen.

So, to get to the point, having good source material is a huge part of the solution to the problem of inclusion.

All of the long-winded preceding leads me to note that there are a couple of writing opportunities for people who read this column (or for the sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, granddaughters and grandsons of people who read this column) that are worthy of pursuit.

The first came to me from Dan Mayeda, with regard to the Universal Pictures Emerging Writers Fellowship. The second is the National Playwriting Competition from East West Players. (Mayeda has been involved with EWP for years, too. Hmm. I detect a pattern …)

Let’s start with the Universal Pictures Emerging Writers Fellowship. Entries began Oct. 21. It’s billed as “an exciting program at Universal Pictures that is designed to identify and cultivate new and unique voices with a passion for storytelling.”

Now, this is no fly-by-night screenplay contest. It’s backed by the NBCUniversal Corporate Diversity team and endorsed by Writers Guild of America, West, the latter of which I am (barely) a member. In other words, it’s the real, reel deal.

I suggest you visit the aforementioned link, but you’ll need to submit a completed screenplay as a sample. Ten finalists will be chosen, and from that five will receive a year-long fellowship. The application link, FYI, is here.

That brings us to the EWP’s “2042: See Change” playwriting competition. What’s that mean? From the news release: “According to Census reports, it is estimated that by 2042, for the first time people of color will make up a majority of the U.S. population. With this shift in demographics, the face of America will look and feel different.

“‘We want to challenge other theaters to prepare for this change by thinking differently in their artistic programming and their audience development strategy,’ says EWP Producing Artistic Director Tim Dang. ‘In many areas, the change has already happened. The future is here. 2042: See Change is the perfect launch to initiate and innovate new works for the American theatre that include more opportunities for people of color, women, youth and ideas for the next generation of art making.’ ”

Got that? Now, it cost $20 to submit an original, unproduced play — but the first-place winner gets $5,000, the second-place winner $2,500 and the third-place winner $1,000. And, since EWP gets the first option to produce it, a winning play might even have a life beyond the page and to the stage.

Entries are under way and the final submission deadline is Jan. 5, 2015. Visit http://tinyurl.com/ouroav8 for details on this playwriting competition.

R.I.P. Sumi Haru Dept.: The actress-activist died Oct. 16 at age 75. According to her L.A. Times obituary, one of her daughters said she had been “struggling with emphysema.” (There’s a YouTube video she posted in 2013 from a TV hosting gig in which she talks about the dangers of smoking. Check it out to see her in her prime.)

It’s a cliché but an apt one to say she was a giant — even though I’d be surprised if she topped 5 feet in height — when it came to fighting for the changes alluded to in this column’s main section with regard to casting and inclusion of Asian Pacific Americans and Asians by Hollywood.

I met Haru years ago, back when I worked for JACL’s Pacific Citizen. She was then active with AAPAA, the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists, which at the time led the fight among Asian American community organizations concerned with (mis)casting of APAs and Asians in TV, movies and the stage. She was also active with the Screen Actors Guild with regard to fairness and inclusion in acting.

We shared an interesting link in that we both spent time growing up in Colorado. She was always giving of her time and gracious, but I could tell she was a fighter for what she believed in, someone you didn’t want to be on the wrong side of!

While sad she’s no longer with us, I’m heartened that her activism has paid off in the present day with greater inclusion of Asians in TV and movies. You did good, Sumi! Thank you.

Talking ’Bout Their Generation Dept.: The youngest second-generation JAs are probably in their mid-80s, with the rest now in their 90s. While everyone still with us in that age group undoubtedly has pleasant memories of the big band music they listened to as young people, for those who grew up on the West Coast but were forcibly removed from their homes to be incarcerated by the federal government for the duration of WWII, music may have been one of the few things that connected them to the world beyond barbed wire.

At least that’s how music entrepreneur Gerald Ishibashi sees it. For that reason, he wants to give the greatest generation a chance to relive that music again, maybe for the last time.

As you may have read elsewhere in this newspaper, Ishibashi’s Stonebridge Entertainment is producing “The Great Nisei Reunion” concert at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 16, at the Aratani Theatre. It features the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, the Mills Bros. and the Island Crooners. In my conversation with him, Ishibashi noted that the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and Mills Bros. are not, of course, the original bands but what I call “brand bands,” legacies to the original bands with family or business ties to the originals that faithfully recreate their sound.

While one never knows which will be the last breath, it’s safe to say that when you get into your 80s and 90s, you’re approaching the end of the line in this life. Why not, then, take a trip — uh, let’s make that stroll, since we don’t need any broken hips — down memory boulevard and hear that wonderful music, live and in person as those tunes were meant to be heard?

If you’re in that target audience and want to attend, then get your Sansei son or daughter (or grandchildren if they’re old enough) to take you to the concert. If you order tickets before Nov. 1, one regular admission ducat will get a Nisei in for free. What a deal! (FYI, you don’t need to be a Nisei to attend — all are welcome.) Tickets are $45 and $60. Bento lunches will be for sale prior to the show. Interested? Call (310) 627-7272.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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