By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
Strolling the upper-floor gardens at the Kyoto Grand Hotel last week, Jude Narita marveled at the serenity of the grounds and wondered why she’d never been up there.
“I’ve only seen this on TV, and it looked huge,” she quipped. Now in her third decade as an artist and actor, there aren’t many places Narita hasn’t visited. She is among the pioneers of modern Asian American theater, those who gave voice to the life experiences of many whose stories were trivialized or exploited.
“My agenda has always been to make the invisible visible,” she explained. “To make people who are Americans here feel visible and to help them reclaim portions of their culture and their history that have been misrepresented or eliminated from American history.”
After an absence that seems like ages, Narita returns to what she called her “rock”–the Asian American community and the Southern California stage–this weekend, with “Jude Narita and Friends,” opening Friday and running through Dec. 6 at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica.
The production will feature a host of invited guests–the lineups differ by show dates–including veterans Denise Uyehara and Dan Kwong and newcomers Dawen and Sue Jin, as well as screenings of daughter Darling Narita’s new film, “Slambam.”
The centerpiece, though, will be Narita in her celebration of Asian and Asian American women, “From The Heart,” which will have its L.A. premiere after tours in Washington and Tennessee.
“It’s a collection of some of my early pieces, with a few pieces from my recent show and hopefully we’ll be able to fit in one more brand-new piece,” she explained.
Her absence from local venues hasn’t been the result of touring alone. Narita has focused a great deal of time and energy on caring for her mother, Cobi Narita, in New York. The renowned singer and founder of Women In Jazz has been battling Parkinson’s Disease, but continues to produce shows and to encourage young artists.
Indeed, it was her mother who was instrumental in helping a teenaged Jude, feeling thwarted by the Hollywood system over stereotyped roles, to find her own path.
“I was trying to fit into the system,” she recalled. “Once I stepped outside of that, and realized that the system works wonderfully for beautiful white people, and not necessarily that well for anyone who doesn’t fit a white writer’s decription of that character. That’s why I encourage all creative people that it all starts with the word, with the idea.”
Narita first garnered wide notice in 1987 with her one-woman play “Coming Into Passion/Song For A Sansei,” which ran for 24 months in L.A. and earned her the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Struck by the plight and misguided impressions of women among the strife and war in Vietnam and Cambodia, she created “Walk The Mountain,” in which she offers a humanizing counterweight to the cartoony, “Hi Joe! You got girlfriend?” personas that were the norm in mainstream media.
“The images of Vietnamese women was always from the point of view of young soldiers, who used them, exploited them and disposed of them,” she explained. “The Asians became dispoable characters. What that does to Asians watching is, you don’t want to be identified by that. It’s not a real human being that’s portrayed.”
She admitted that she had to combat one of her most natural instincts to properly present her character, a Vietnamese bar girl, in “Coming Into Passion.”
“I used to cry when performing that character. My mother taped it one time and I realized I couldn’t cry, because if I cried, then I’d be an American commenting on this character. The audience has to cry, then they’re drawn into this woman as a human being, not as a symbol.”
Narita is forever etched into the origins and history of Asian American theater, coming onto the scene as the term itself was just being coined. The movement grew out of the early to mid-1980s and spawned often one-person shows by the likes of Lane Nishikawa and Narita, introducing sectors of the American public–often on college campuses–to aspects of Asian American life that were largely unknown outside of large metro areas.
Narita said the torch is passed to a new generation, whose talents are expanding–even beyond her own sensibilities–into areas such as spoken word performance, and that she is gratified to have had any hand in opening avenues for other artists.
“I’ve been very humbled by what my work has meant to other people,” she said. “When I started out, it was just for me to have a chance to act and to say things that reflected how I looked. Going through acting school, I was always battling that, like it was radio. I used to say to myself, ‘You are such a good actress that you will make people forget what you look like and make them feel what the character is feeling.’”
Given her mother’s health, it was difficult for Narita to look too far into the future, as far as subsequent projects are concerned. Retirement, however, is nowhere on the horizon.
“I think I’ll always perform on stage. There’s just something about the live performance. I think I’ll always write parts for Asian Americans. “I think that while the industry has changed, it hasn’t quite changed that much. There are still certain images out there; I think Sandra Oh breaks a lot of them, being savvy and smart. Simply, I love to act, so I continue to put up pieces and write.”
Narita’s legacy, the sum impact of her collective work may very well be about claiming your own label, about removing the limits of identity placed upon you by others and finding your words, articulated your way.
“Take something about being called ‘yellow’ and say, ‘No, I’m golden,’” she said.
“Jude Narita and Friends” opens Friday, Nov. 27 and runs Thursdays to Sundays through Dec. 6. The Miles Playhouse is located at 1130 Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica. Presale tickets are $10 until Nov. 26, $15 thereafter. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.