A Look Back at Great Leap’s Beginnings

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Songs from Great Leap’s rock musical “Chop Suey” were performed by (from left) Denice Kumagai, Marilyn Tokuda, “Atomic Nancy” Sekizawa, Nobuko Miyamoto, Deb Nishimura, Peter Kwong, Michael Paul Chan, and Mike Hagiwara.

Great Leap celebrated 40 years of art and community on March 11 at Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.

Covering the period from 1970 to 1982, “Finding Voice” was the first of four “Gatherings” focusing on the journey of Great Leap co-founder and artistic director Nobuko Miyamoto and her performing arts organization. As Joanne Miya, she appeared in such mainstream productions as “West Side Story,” but as a community artist, Miyamoto sought to express Asian American identity and issues. Over the years, Great Leap grew to include different ethnic groups and religions as well as environmental concerns.

Tim Dang (left), who went on to become artistic director of East West Players, shares his memories of Great Leap.

The program started with a performance of “We Are the Children,” composed by Miyamoto and the late Chris Iijima, which was one of the songs on the groundbreaking album “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggles by Asians in America” (1973). Miyamoto was joined in the performance by Genie Nakano, Quincy Surasmith, Lisa Abe Furutani, “Atomic Nancy” Sekizawa, Carla Vega, Anne Ito and Marsha Furutani.

The program opened with “We Are the Children,” a song by Nobuko Miyamoto and the late Chris Iijima.

Miyamoto and Iijima, appearing as Yellow Pearl, performed the song on national television in 1972 as guests on “The Mike Douglas Show” when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were co-hosting for a week.

Following opening remarks by long-time Great Leap associates Warren Furutani and Dr. Deborah Wong, members of Miyamoto’s dance class (1975-1987) reunited for a brief performance. Miyamoto was joined by Nakano, Vega, Lisa Furutani, Marsha Furutani, Vicki Takeuchi Wynne (who came from the Bay Area to participate), Vivian Matsushige and others. Nakano read her poem “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” (see text below).

The band Warriors of the Rainbow was reunited. From left: Danny Yamamoto, Alan Furutani, Nobuko Miyamoto, Benny Yee, Taiji Miyagawa.

Vivian Matsushige, Nobuko Miyamoto, Rev. Mas Kodani and George Abe share memories.

The dancers, who used to practice in the same social hall where the anniversary event was held, shared their recollections in a “Story Circle” facilitated by writer/actor traci kato-kiriyama of PULLproject Ensemble and including Rev. Mas Kodani of Senshin, musician George Abe, and Sue Oda Omori.

The next performance, “West to East,” was by the band Warriors of the Rainbow (1974-1982), featuring Miyamoto (vocals), Benny Yee (composer and keyboards), Danny Yamamoto (taiko), Alan Furutani (saxophone) and Taiji Miyagawa (bass). Their Story Circle was facilitated by Tuesday Night Café producer and Tuesday Night Project lead curator Sean Miura.

“Atomic Nancy” Sekizawa sings a song from “Chop Suey.”

Excerpts from “Chop Suey” (1978-1981), believed to be the first Asian American rock musical, were performed by Miyamoto, Yee, Sekizawa, Michael Paul Chan, Marilyn Tokuda, Denice Kumagai, Peter Kwong, Deb Nishimura and Mike Hagiwara. The show about Asian immigrant laborers in the garment and restaurant industries featured such songs as “May I Take Your Order Please,” “Set Me Free,” “Sweat Shop,” and “American Made.”

The Story Circle, facilitated by performance artist Dan Kwong, Great Leap associate artistic director, also included Tim Dang, former artistic director of East West Players, and Mike Kan, producer of “Chop Suey” in Oregon.

Longtime activist and former State Assembly member Warren Furutani gave opening remarks.

Sekizawa’s daughter Zen, who appeared in “Chop Suey” as a child, was part of the crew documenting the event along with Eugene Ahn, Tad Nakamura, Angela Moreira and Chen Gu.

Since becoming involved with Great Leap, many of the performers have worked on other community projects as well as Hollywood productions. Alan and Marsha Furutani formed their own band, Visions, and released an album. Yamamoto is a member of the band Hiroshima. Tokuda and Kumagai are co-founders of the Cold Tofu comedy troupe and have appeared on numerous TV shows; Tokuda was also an administrator at East West Players. Chan, who has extensive TV and film credits, currently plays Lt. Michael Tao on “Major Crimes.” Kwong’s credits include the movie “Big Trouble in Little China.” Nishimura performed in several plays at EWP.

Michael Paul Chan plays a waiter in “Chop Suey.”

Speakers emphasized that many of the issues that Great Leap took on in the ’70s and ’80s, including racism, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiment, still need to be addressed by today’s activists.

Attendees, most of whom had ties to Great Leap, also viewed an exhibit of photos from Great Leaps formative years. Refreshments were provided by Feast from the East.

The next “Gatherings” event, covering 1978 to 1995, will be held on June 17. The next two, covering 1992 to 2009 and 2002 to the present, will take place next year. For more information, visit www.greatleap.org or the “Great Leap Inc.” page on Facebook.

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

Women Hold Up Half the Sky

By GENIE NAKANO

Dr. Deborah Wong

here right here

we found our voices

made our moves

body and spirit

we took a great leap

 

in this space

taiko claimed rhythms

on this floor

we passed a century

and the beat goes on

 

reaching high

with our fingertips

we feel

freedom

in limitless space —

 

we slide, we fall

in this place we fly

on this floor

our roots are deep

“Women Hold Up Half the Sky”

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