By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
James and Sumi Washington are at a crossroads after 37 years of marriage.
At the beginning of Philip Kan Gotanda’s two-character play “Yohen,” co-presented by East West Players and the Robey Theatre Company, directed by Ben Guillory and running through Nov. 19 at EWP, Sumi has asked James to move out of the house and to visit as if he is courting her again.
We learn about how they fell in love in occupied Japan when James was serving in the Army, and how both of their families disapproved of the marriage. After decades together, they still care for each other, but they have different interests (boxing for him, pottery for her) and, more importantly, different ideas of what they want to do with their lives. The title is a Japanese pottery term that refers to unpredictable changes that take place in the kiln.
June Angela plays Sumi opposite Danny Glover, who first played James opposite the late Nobu McCarthy at EWP in 1999.
For Angela, who has extensive stage, screen and singing credits going back decades, this was her first time working with Glover, who is known for such films as “The Color Purple” and the “Lethal Weapon” series.
She did one of Gotanda’s plays, “The Dream of Kitamura,” in New York, California and Hawaii, and recorded his “Ballad of Yachiyo” for L.A. Theatre Works’ “The Play’s the Thing” on National Public Radio.
Asked if doing a two-character play is a challenge, Angela answered, “Well, first, you have to have stamina. This play is very intense. I think this play is so beautiful and I’m having a great time with Danny.”
Regarding the cultural clashes between the couple, she said, “In this world we all are living with many immigrant cultures every day. In the case of Sumi and James, two people with many differences from totally different worlds. But, through it all they share one most important thing — their love for each other. Hopefully, we can all still try to learn and appreciate all our differences.”
Angela is gratified by the responses she has gotten from audiences. “It’s been wonderful to see people being so moved. They say it leaves them still thinking about the lives of these two people. It’s been great to have them be so emotionally involved with the play. It’s still so relevant in today’s world, too …
“People have told me that Sumi and James are relatable as a long-time married couple whose lives change over many years, through ups and downs, good and trying times. It crosses all ethnicities.”
Angela has been performing since she was 5. Her first public appearance was as a model doing a runway fashion show for designer Bill Blass. “I still love what I do,” she said.
“Electric Company” Alum
From 1971 to 1977, she was a cast member on “The Electric Company,” a PBS show from the creators of “Sesame Street” that taught kids how to read. She was part of a singing group called The Short Circus and was the only member to appear during the entire run of the show. Other members included Irene Cara, who later had hits like “Fame.” The adult cast members included Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno.
“It was a worldwide TV series which people still remember today,” Angela said. “I meet adults and they say they grew up watching me. When I was doing the show — we taped in New York — kids on the subway would recognize me and start singing the opening theme of the show and we’d laugh.
“It was lots of work — learning songs, choreography, lines, recording and then shooting on camera — all this happening after school. But it wasn’t hard at all, it was fun. Growing up on the show working with Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno was great … I lost touch with the cast, except I would see Rita once in a while.
“Knowing that I was helping kids read was terrific. I liked everything about doing the show and nowadays, I’m recognized if I mention I was on the show. I still get fan letters to this day.”
In 1976, she played the daughter of Pat Morita and Pat Suzuki on a short-lived ABC sitcom, “Mr. T and Tina.” She later played the daughter of Morita and Cloris Leachman in a TV drama, “Blind Alleys.”
“He was a wonderful man and we had fun doing comedy on the set,” Angela said of Morita. “It was about 10 years later when we were reunited as father and daughter, this time in a drama. When he saw me, he said that I grew up! We kept in touch afterwards, too.”
She has had a variety of TV roles ever since, including a doctor on “Dexter” and Madam Xing, the family psychic, on “Fresh Off the Boat.”
One of her favorite roles was in the 1986 made-for-TV movie “American Geisha,” starring Pam Dawber. “It was based on a true-life book by Liza Dalby. She was an American lady who went into that unique world and experienced being a geisha. I played the geisha who was her best friend and was teaching her. We shot in Japan for three weeks. It was beautiful, but the makeup and hair process took three hours a day.”
Like many Asian American actors, Angela is aware of stereotyping in the entertainment industry, but “I never was put in a position to be offended by any role.”
She finds doing voiceover work for radio and cartoons (including the English version of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service”) particularly liberating. “It’s terrific not having to be the right type. Your voice can be anyone. I do many accents and ages and have played English and Southern women, really playing against type. I was Anne Frank.
“I also enjoy narrating and doing voices of character animals and creatures too. There is a site and app called Audible where you can get audiobooks. I’ve recorded over 30 books for them … I love doing these children’s stories. I guess it’s still part of ‘The Electric Company’ in me.”
On stage, Angela enjoys doing musicals and non-musical equally. One of her most memorable shows was “Shogun: The Musical,” for which she received Tony and Drama Desk award nominations for best leading actress as Lady Mariko (the character played by Yoko Shimada in the TV miniseries).
For that role, “I also learned to fight from a master sensei,” she recalled. “What an experience!”
In “Sayonara,” another musical based on a movie, Angela was the leading lady, Hana-ogi (played by Miiko Taka in the original). “I had to learn to play taiko drums in that show.”
“Doing ‘The King and I’ original Broadway revival with Yul Brynner (star of the movie version) was special for me,” she said. “I played the ingenue lead role of Tuptim (played by Moreno in the movie) and sang ‘We Kiss in a Shadow’ and ‘I Have Dreamed. I was the youngest person to ever play the part. I then played it at the London Palladium — a total of over 1,300 performances, never missing a show.”
In the world premiere of “Cambodia Agonistes,” which was produced off-Broadway at Pan Asian Repertory Theater, Angela played a Cambodian dancer who is a refugee in America suffering from psychosomatic blindness. She said that musical “was a very dark piece, but it had beauty, too.”
She has released a solo CD of shows she has done.
One of her favorite non-musical plays was “Tea” by Velina Hasu Houston, which focuses on Japanese war brides living in America. “I love that my role of Himiko Hamilton got to portray many characters — my own Japanese character self from Japan, my American GI husband, and my teenage daughter as well.”
That portrayal earned her a Theatre Guild Award for best lead actress.
Having made her soprano debut at age 10 with the New York City Opera as Flora in Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” Angela also has many favorite concerts. One that stands out: “I was invited to sing in a Festival of the Arts in China with a 100-piece orchestra. It was a live broadcast concert with an audience of 40,000.”
Angela, who also participated in a Cole Porter tribute with Peter Nero and the National Symphony Orchestra, said she loves all kinds of genres — Broadway, opera, jazz, pop — but not hard rock or heavy metal.
She was a lyricist, composer and performer for a Disney music video about multiculturalism. “The idea is that we are all friends, no matter what we may look like,” she explained. “We can sing and all hear our song and even though we are different we all can get along.”
Angela is also co-creator/author of a series of children’s books, “The Bibblehops.” “The books I wrote are not so much multicultural, but they have the same feel with my characters being child animals — a rabbit and a dinosaur,” she said. “At first glance, they don’t like or understanding their differences. But in the story they grow and learn to celebrate and appreciate their differences.”
After “Yohen,” her plans are to record more audio books and then go to New York for the holidays. For more information on her career, visit www.juneangela.com.
“Yohen” is being staged at the David Henry Hwang Theater at Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St. in Little Tokyio. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased by calling (213) 625-7000 or going online to www.eastwestplayers.org. Prices range from $40 to $60. Student, senior and group discounts are available.