Amid Heavy Subjects, Island Star Rises

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Jodie Kiyokawa takes on roles in a film about the internment, and an atomic bombing musical this weekend at the Aratani.

Jodie Kiyokawa pays a visit to the Go For Broke Monument in Little Tokyo. The 11-year-old from Hawaii will appear in this weekend’s “Peace on Your Wings” as well as an upcoming film about wartime internment. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Jodie Kiyokawa pays a visit to the Go For Broke Monument in Little Tokyo. The 11-year-old from Hawaii will appear in this weekend’s “Peace on Your Wings” as well as an upcoming film about wartime internment. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment

Screenwriter Eric Nemoto is a big fan of present-day technology.

“Making movies is so affordable now,” he explained from Honolulu. “You don’t need 50 million dollars, and it allows us to craft screenplays from everyday stories.”

One such project on Nemoto’s slate these days is a story from Encino-based producer Jerry Wayne. As a boy, Wayne’s family was in need of a nanny and hired a teenaged Japanese American girl. This was in the midst of the wartime internment of “persons of Japanese ancestry” and anti-Japanese sentiment was raging.

Wayne and the nanny named Janet forged a robust friendship, but after a couple of months, federal authorities arrived to take her to Manzanar.

“My parents refused to explain exactly what was happening,” said Wayne, 78. “I was full of questions and now, maybe I can tell a story that begins to answer them.”

Wayne’s story is “Lisa Patterson: An American Opera,” a film written with Nemoto and currently in pre-production with an eye to begin shooting early next year. The story follows an adopted JA teenager who excels in nearly every way but is sent away because of her heritage.

Wayne happened upon a young talent at an acting class Nemoto was teaching in Hawaii, and knew she was perfect for a lead part. 11-year-old Jodie Kiyokawa had begun appearing in school plays in the first grade, when she was cast as the Evil Queen rather than her preferred role of Snow White.

Kiyokawa’s stock is rising, as she is part of a production that comes to Little Tokyo’s Aratani Theatre this Friday and Saturday.

“Peace on Your Wings,” from Honolulu’s Ohana Arts, is a musical inspired by the real-life story of atomic bomb survivor Sadako Sasaki and her thousand paper cranes. After its premiere last November, the show returned last month for performances to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The youth cast of “Peace on Your Wings” performed some musical pieces from the show at Disneyland on Monday, and will stage a preview at the Japanese American National Museum on Friday afternoon.

For “Lisa Patterson,” Kiyokawa said she has had to work on her dancing as well as her acting and singing. “I once had an audition for ‘Annie,’ but I couldn’t tap dance, so there was some motivation there,” she explained.

Kiyokawa has appeared in productions across Hawaii, and while she admits the workload can be a bit much, she never tires of the rush from being on stage.

“It can be scary, but exciting, like a roller-coaster drop,” she described. “Maybe that’s why I like rollercoasters.”

Nemoto said he was convinced to take part in the “Lisa Patterson” project mainly due to the passion Wayne has for the issue at hand.

“He is entirely committed to this, and I think he feels the weight of his generation to tell this story and in some way, start to help make it right,” Nemoto said of the producer.

Wayne sent an early draft of the script to Toshiko Wilkinson, who as a student from UCLA was pulled from school and sent to be imprisoned at Manzanar. She praised the story’s central theme and admitted that it brought back painful feelings from her own experiences, and her struggles to gaman, or endure the indignity without making trouble.

“There was a point in the story when I nodded in total agreement – years go by and prison life is taking its toll,” Wilkinson wrote. “I too tried gaman, but there came a time when I was ready to jump out of my skin.”

After the war, Janet the nanny returned to work for Wayne’s family, and though she rarely spoke about it, she was tormented in her days at community college.

“I think if she had ever told me about it, she would have been outraged,” Wayne said.

“Peace on Your Wings” will have three performances — 8 p.m. on Sept. 18 and 2 and 8 p.m. on Sept. 19 — at the Aratani Theatre at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles. Visit www.jaccc.org for information.

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