Becoming Hisaye

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Actress channels a real-life writer on stage in “Mexican Day.”

Jully Lee as Hisaye Yamamoto and Donathan Walters as Bayard Rustin in Tom Jacobson’s “Mexican Day.” (Photo by John Perrin Flynn)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Hisaye Yamamoto was a noted short-story writer whose works have been adapted for screen and stage, but “The Ballad of Bimini Baths: Mexican Day,” currently being presented by Rogue Machine at the Met Theatre in Los Angeles, is believed to mark the first time that the author herself has been a character in a play.

Yamamoto (1921-2011), also known by her married name, DeSoto, wrote such stories as “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake,” which were combined by filmmaker Emiko Omori in the TV drama “Hot Summer Winds” in 1991. Her story “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” was the basis of a performance piece by storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki. (All three stories are in the book “Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories.”)

She briefly worked as a journalist upon being released from the Poston camp in Arizona, landing a job at The Los Angeles Tribune, an African American weekly, where she gained insight into the black community’s struggles. Her duties included compiling a list of lynchings that had happened across the country during the past week, and her encounter with an African American family that moved into a white neighborhood and later died in a suspicious fire is chronicled in her essay “A Fire in Fontana.”

It was during this time, in 1948, that Yamamoto organized a series of pickets protesting racial discrimination at Bimini Baths, an L.A. hot springs resort, where people of color were allowed only on “Mexican Day” — the day before the pools were drained. According to author and Nichi Bei Weekly columnist Greg Robinson, the campaign lasted several weeks and ended inconclusively.

Robinson also wrote, “In July 1947, CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] began a series of Saturday sit-ins in the restaurant of the downtown Bullocks department store, which refused to serve the store’s black patrons. A mixture of white, black and Nisei patrons took up seats and refused to leave until they were served. Yamamoto publicized the group’s activities in her column (to the consternation of editor Almena Davis, who disagreed with CORE’s direct action tactics). After several weeks, Bullocks capitulated and ended its segregation.”

Award-winning playwright Tom Jacobson focuses on this period in “Mexican Day,” directed by Jeff Liu and starring Jully Lee as Yamamoto, Donathan Walters as civil rights legend Bayard Rustin, Darrell Larson as art curator Everett Maxwell, and Jonathan Medina as the fictional Zenobio Remedios, who works at Bimini Baths and has to enforce its prejudicial policies despite being Latino himself. The actors also take on secondary roles, with Lee briefly appearing as Yasunari, a Japanese American bathhouse worker.

“Mexican Day” was produced concurrently with two other plays by Jacobson set at Bimini Baths during different time periods and featuring some of the same characters, “Plunge” (Son of Semele Theater) and “Tar” (Playwrights’ Arena). Located near Third Street and Vermont Avenue in what is now Koreatown, Bimini Baths was open from 1902 to 1951.

Actress’ Journey

Lee, who previously worked with Jacobson in “Chinese Massacre (Annotated),” his play about the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, was asked to be part of the Bimini Baths workshop process in 2013.

“At that time … the Bimini Baths epic was a different concept, even more ambitious than its current incarnation as the trilogy,” she said. “Hisaye Yamamoto was originally a tertiary character among dozens and dozens of other characters. After that initial workshop process that I had participated in, there were other workshops as the play developed that I was not involved with.

“In 2016, I was contacted again … to participate in the staged reading of ‘Mexican Day’ at Son of Semele. It was fascinating to see how the ‘The Ballad of Bimini Baths’ had developed into a trilogy that spanned over 30 years.

“In March of this year, I was down at South Coast Repertory seeing a production of ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ … where I ran into Jeff Liu, who had directed ‘Chinese Massacre (Annotated),’ and who I had worked with a dozen times … We talked about the different projects we were working on, and he mentioned that he would be directing the upcoming production of ‘Mexican Day’ at Rogue Machine Theatre. This was how I found out that ‘The Ballad of Bimini Baths’ was going into production.

“Shortly after, I received a lovely email from the casting director, Victoria Hoffman, inviting me to audition for the role of Hisaye Yamamoto. I auditioned for Jeff, Victoria and John Perrin Flynn, artistic director of Rogue. I received a callback, among other wonderfully talented Asian American actresses, which the playwright also attended.”

Prior to becoming involved in the project, Lee didn’t know about Yamamoto. “I had learned about Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu — Peter Irons, the attorney responsible for the reopening of the wartime internment cases of Fred Korematsu, et al., was a law professor of mine at UCSD — but I was ignorant of the many grassroots heroines.

“In just the last couple of years, I’ve been involved with “Pull Project: Tales of Clamor” by traci kato-kiriyama and Kennedy Kabasares, which centers around the CWRIC [Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians] hearings of 1981, throwing me deeper into the world of political activism, introducing me to the amazing and powerful members of NCRR [National Coalition for Redress/Reparations] like Kathy Masaoka and Miya Iwataki.”

Lee also portrayed civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama in a staged reading of “Yuri & Malcolm” by Tim Toyama at Compton Junior College, where Yamamoto earned an AA degree, and performed in an abridged version of Chay Yew’s “Question 27, Question 28,” presented by Artists at Play and Center Theatre Group. The first play explored the friendship between Kochiyama and Malcolm X, whose assassination she witnessed; the second dealt with the divisive loyalty questionnaire imposed on Japanese Americans in camp.

“Through my involvement in these different plays and presentations, I had the opportunity to learn more deeply about the context of the history and experiences that Hisaye lived through and wrote about,” Lee said. “I also saw [an adaptation of]‘Little Women’ by Velina Hasu Houston, which provided context for the post-wartime experience of Japanese Americans.”

Upon being cast as Yamamoto, “I scoured YouTube and Google to find what I could on Hisaye. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch ‘Hot Summer Winds’ on YouTube and I watched all of Hisaye’s interviews through the digital archives by Densho, a resource I have used many, many times in my research of various projects … There also many analyses available online of her short stories ‘The Legend of Miss Sasagawara’ and ‘Seventeen Syllables’ as well as news articles and biographies on Hisaye’s life and contributions.

“It actually wasn’t until after the opening of the production that I learned of her connections to people I personally know in the community. Namely, learning that J.K. Yamamoto is her nephew … I also had the honor of meeting her niece Kathee and one of her daughters when they came to see the play. It was quite emotional for me to make this connection after I had done the academic research into Hisaye’s life and then the emotional work into portraying her.

“There is a line in the play where I casually mention an incident with my 3-year-old brother Jemo as Hisaye. After one of our performances, I will never forget hearing the words ‘Jemo is Kathee and J.K.’s father!’ That in particular hit me hard. There was such an incongruity in my casual mention of baby Jemo … to literally hugging and shaking hands with his adult children. It was surreal. I felt two inches tall while my heart expanded to fill the span of the 70 years between 1948 to today. It was extraordinary.”

Jully Lee as Hisaye Yamamoto and Jonathan Medina as Zenobio Remedios in Tom Jacobson’s “Mexican Day.” (Photo by John Perrin Flynn)

There is a great deal of dialogue between Yamamoto and Rustin in the play. In real life, the two were both active with the civil rights and pacifist group Fellowship of Reconciliation and Yamamoto reported on Rustin’s lecture to the JACL, but Lee is unaware of any actual interaction between them.

“Tom Jacobson informed me that he had used Hisaye’s own writing and writing style to voice the character of Hisaye in his play. This helped tremendously,” Lee recalled. “The style of ‘Mexican Day’ has a screwball comedy energy, and so much of the dialogue is heightened, a little too smart and fast-paced. To know that the essence of her voice was behind the dialogue helped me to ground the character underneath the fast-paced pitter-patter of the speech.

“Jeff Liu helped us to constantly reach for that heightened, elevated expression of the words, while knowing that Tom had crafted the dialogue inspired by Hisaye’s own words grounded that lift. I come from a background in comedy — 14 years with Cold Tofu Improv — and so I immediately gravitated toward the sardonic tone of Hisaye’s words, finding humor in everyday moments, from the incredulity in the ridiculousness of the discriminatory practices she faced to the frustrating and confusing aspects of dating.”

Relevance for Today

Asked what she would like audiences to learn from this 70-year-old story, Lee responded, “We must see ourselves in the ‘other’ in order to advocate for the greater good. Any differences perceived are put upon us by our society and culture. Color, hierarchy, etc. This story so beautifully weaves the experiences of four individuals who come from four corners of American culture who have all experienced some form of injustice and discrimination. While not equating these experiences, the play brings all four together in a final act of shared collective purging and renewal.

“I hope what audiences take away from seeing ‘Mexican Day’ is that individuals have power in whittling away injustices — especially in this political climate where our country seems so hopelessly divided. By coming together as one, we are stronger. We must fight for those beliefs, and when we tire, there will be others to take on the next shift, but we must not stop. The story continues. In the last scene, there is a subtle baton-passing of the story to the audience. While very subtle, I hope that this message comes across.”

As artistic director of Cold Tofu, Lee will be teaching a class with Associate Artistic Director Michael C. Palma, and the performing cast has an improv comedy show coming up at the Pasadena Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theatre on July 29. Cold Tofu will also perform at the Nisei Week Coronation in August and Aaron Takahashi, former core performing member and current vice president of the board, is this year’s parade marshal.

Lee is continuing her work with “Pull Project: Tales of Clamor” with a workshop presentation on Aug. 26 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. Films that she shot last year — “The Illegal,” “Reach” and “Thriller” — will be coming out later this year, and earlier this year she shot an episode of “Henry Danger” (Nickleodeon) and the Netflix series “Best Worst Weekend Ever” and “The Kominsky Method.”

“Mexican Day” has been extended three weeks at The Met, 1089 N. Oxford Ave. Showtimes: Friday, July 6, 13 and 20, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, July 7 and 21, at 4 p.m. (no show July 14); Sunday, July 8, 15 and 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40. Reservations: (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com.

Parking is available on the street or for $6 in the lot at the Medical Center east of the 101 Freeway at 5300 Santa Monica Blvd.

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