By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment Editor
Years ago, venerable Japanese actor Akira Takarada appeared in a television commercial for a wig and toupée manufacturer, proclaiming, “Hair is a treasure.”
Learning how true (or not) that statement is has been a life-consuming ordeal for actor, writer and movement artist Yokko, who stars in the deeply personal “Baldy,” now through June 30 at the Asylum Lab Theatre in Hollywood.
“For women, especially in Japan, hair is life, really,” said the actor, who was born Yoshiko Usami. “For a woman not to have hair is very weird, many people would think.”
Growing up in Nagoya, Yokko lived under the constant pressure of her martial arts instructor father to excel, in school, at home and in life. At the age of 19, having just entered college to study acting, she noticed her hair falling out at an alarming rate. Within three months of her arrival in Tokyo, she was completely bald.
“At the time, we figured it was probably due to stress,” she explained. “I had gone through the very difficult college entrance exams, but the doctors were never really sure why all the hair fell out.”
“Baldy,” which is being staged as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, follows the young woman and her efforts to treat the hair loss, but before it gets any better, her condition worsens dramatically.
“A local pharmacist recommended a supplement to help treat my condition, but it made my skin deteriorate, to the point of simply falling off,” Yokko told the Rafu on Wednesday.
At the age of 21 and presumably in the prime of her life, Yokko was bedridden in hospitals and at home for the next two years, as skin all over her body became itchy then simply peeled away.
“It was a very dark period for me,” she said.
While her body was coming apart in a most fundamental way, Yokko discovered a strength that had always been there, yet never articulated: the love and support of her father.
“The show really is mainly about my father’s desires and expectations. He didn’t realize the pressure he was putting on me my whole life,” she explained.
The skin heals, but Yokko must confront the voices that have plagued her since she was four years old, as well as a future that will forever see her as very different from the norm she knew growing up.
Nearly a dozen characters are brought forth in this solo performance, exploring kinship, cultural expectations and personal identity, weaving the fantastic with the ordinary in her ongoing search for a singular voice.
Yokko said her father has not seen her work, but she believes he has respect for her struggles and her efforts.
“It’s important not only to live for your parents, but to stand on your own and be free,” she said. “Now, I feel free.”
The Asylum Lab Theatre is located at 1078 Lillian Way in Hollywood. Call (323) 962-1632 or visit http://www.hollywoodfringe.org. Tickets are $15 for the remaining shows, June 22, 25, 29 and 30.