SAN DIEGO — Asian Story Theater’s world premiere of “Stories of the Sun Café” played to full houses at San Diego’s Lyceum Theatre from June 25 to 28.
The run consisted of two evening shows, two matinees, and two shorter shows for schools only.
Directed by Kent Lowe-Brisby, the play is a dramatization of the stories of Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans who were connected to the Sun Café on Market Street, which opened in 1921 and served as a hub of the community until it closed in 2008. (The location is now known as Funky Garcia’s at the Sun Café.)
Those in attendance reminisced before the show, during intermission and after the show in the lobby while looking at a model of the cafe and photos of the people who worked or dined there.
Based on interviews and historical records, the play was divided into 22 short segments about different aspects of the cafe’s history, including:
“Rebirth” — The cafe’s founding family, the Obayashis, gathered at the site to commemorate its closing in 2009.
“Overcooked” — The Jeong family operated the café from 1961 to 2008. Early times were sometimes rough, including a kitchen fire that could have been disastrous.
“Soup’s On” — Prior to settling in for a run as the oldest restaurant in San Diego, Uichiro “Joe” Obayashi’s soup was more popular than his shooting range. In 1921, the business changed into a restaurant and took a different role in San Diego’s growth.
“Money King” — Old Chinatown had a tradition of small-scale lotteries that were illegal but ubiquitous, right up until the citywide cleanup for the California Exposition of 1935.
“Ten-Cent Western” — Eugene and Joe Yamada are brothers who have rich memories of growing up in the Sun Café during the 1930s and ’40s. During World War II, they were sent to the internment camp at Poston, Ariz., where Joe met the love of his life.
“David’s Friendly Produce” — Tom Hom’s eventful first-hand perspective on San Diego started early, in the family produce business.
“I’ve Got a Gal” — Clara Breed was a librarian at San Diego’s Public Library. She is especially remembered for her support of Japanese American children during World War II, answering hundreds of their letters while also campaigning in Congress against the “relocation.”
“Johnny Comes Marching Home” — Joe Obayashi recalls his parents returning to the cafe after the war. “I never heard them complain; they just got back to work.”
“Haircut” — Lloyd Ito shared this first-hand story about a barber who refused to cut his hair after the war.
“Ten-Cent More” — After the war, Joe and Eugene Yamada return to the cafe to find their place.
“Emma’s Neighborhood” — For Emma Hom, the downtown “Stingaree” neighborhood was home during the 1950s.
“Running Rabbit” — Tom Hom’s political career was pioneering in every sense. The “Racial thing” was certainly a challenge — and an opportunity.
“Keep Busy” — Umeko “Meko” Kawamoto worked as a waitress at the café for many years, balancing her work life with her “real” life.
The cast members, all of whom played multiple roles, were Jet Antonio, Carol Cabrera (co-writer), Alan Goya, Rhys Green, Byron LaDue, Dana Wing Lau, Gingerlily Lowe-Brisby (co-writer), Gabriela Nelson, Chuck Ng, Claudette Santiago, Thomas Villegas and Kiki Yeung.
The writers included Thelma Virata de Castro, Lloyd Ito, Kevin Six, Ed You and KL Brisby, with contributions from Murray Lee (Chinese American community liaison/consultant), Joyce Nabeta Teague (Japanese American community liaison/consultant), Yukio Kawamoto and Linda Libby.
“Many of the folks wore several hats for this production,” said Teague, who was part of the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego team that worked on the play. “Jet drew the animation for some of the scenes. Kent designed and built the set, including the diner counter. He designed the projection program and wrote most of the music and lyrics for the show. Very resourceful group. This was a very cool community collaboration.”
Feedback from the community was given at a pre-production script reading of the play in May at the Valencia Park Malcolm X Public Library.
Asian Story Theater dedicated the show to the memory of long-time board member Raymond Lee, who was key in connecting interests and individuals that helped make the show possible. He passed away last fall during the project’s development.
AST’s collaboration with JAHSSD and San Diego Chinese Historical Museum is unusual, Teague said, because “AST usually writes original material for school presentations based on Asian folk tales like ‘The Monkey King.’ For this production, they were inspired to use real history to highlight the struggles and triumphs of our rather quiet community.”
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo