By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
At the beginning of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” currently being performed at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, a group of U.S. sailors stationed on a remote island during World War II sing, “Bloody Mary is the one I love.”
Bloody Mary, played by Jodi Kimura, is a Tonkinese woman who trades with the sailors and calls them “stingy bastards” when they refuse to buy anything. She hopes for a better life for her daughter Liat (Hajin Cho) and wants her to marry Lt. Cable (Matt Rosell), who loves Liat but gets cold feet at the prospect of marrying a woman of color. He sings about racial prejudice in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1949 and was made into a movie in 1958, is also known for such songs as “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk,” both sung by Bloody Mary, as well as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” Juanita Hall portrayed Bloody Mary on stage and screen. The role was played by Lori Tan Chinn in a 2001 made-for-TV movie.
A Yonsei born in Honolulu and raised on Maui, Kimura went to Kahului School and Maui High School, then attended University of Colorado, Boulder.
“There weren’t any ‘arts’ in my school, no choir, no drama program,” she recalled. “There was a band, so I played the French horn and was the drum major. But I was very active in my church choir and I did a production of ‘West Side Story’ at another high school on Maui. The first time I sang a solo in front of an audience was in a church youth group musical. I played a lamb! No one really knew I could ‘really’ sing until then, including me.
“Since then, it’s been falling into one kind of singing opportunity after another. In college, I had no intention of pursuing music, but took a voice class for fun. The teacher thought I had potential and had me sing for the voice faculty as my final. They offered me a small scholarship if I changed my major, so I double-majored in music. And then went on to get an oh-so-lucrative master’s in voice.”
Musical theater is her favorite “because I love the challenge of acting through singing. Sadly, there aren’t as many opportunities for Asian American singer/actors. You will see the token Asian in the ensemble but they are usually decent dancers. And in the business, I’m considered more of a ‘decent mover.’”
Role of a Lifetime
Kimura did not see “South Pacific” on stage until it returned to Broadway in 2008. “I was doing a concert in Montana with Broadway star Kelli O’Hara, who was starring in the Broadway revival. She insisted I come to New York to see her in the show and when I did, she arranged for me to audition for everyone at Lincoln Center. Unbelievable generosity!
“A few months later, in 2009, I was offered the first national tour of the show as the understudy for Bloody Mary. Months later, I took over the role and then was asked to do the Lincoln Center tour in the U.K. Since then, I’ve done the role in five regional houses …
“I had to create a back story for Bloody Mary, about how she got to the South Pacific, who Liat’s father was, and everything else that’s not in the script. I’ve done that work so long ago that I don’t even have to think much about it now, but I do find new things in every version of the show that I do because it involves a different director and a totally different cast …
“I love Bloody Mary because she is survivor and because she’s a strong, powerful woman in a man’s world making her own way with no apologies. I love her because she’s a single mother, an immigrant rising well above her lot in life and running her own successful business. And I love her because of her sense of humor, her curiosity, her intelligence, and her wit. But mostly, I love her because, despite her difficult circumstances, she has so much hope and fights for it with everything she has.
“Much like Bloody Mary, who came from Tonkin, China — modern-day Vietnam — to work on the French plantations, my ancestors came from Japan to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii. Like Bloody Mary, they learned ‘pidgin’ English and like Bloody Mary, they did everything they could to provide a better life for their kids. My Mary is very much inspired by my grandmother and aunties …
“There is a moment in the show when Mary thinks Cable is proposing to Liat, and she is overcome with pride, joy and relief that she has ‘won’ and her daughter will have a good life. And I think of my grandma every time. She always wanted to be a singer and I know she would have been so proud to see me living out her dream. Sadly, she died when I was in college … So the fact that I get to bring her to life every time I do this role means a lot.”
Kimura is aware that some regard Bloody Mary as a negative image. Years ago, one critic of her “overly Asian interpretation” of the character said it pandered to the “me love you long time” stereotype. The critic was a prominent Asian American actor whose work she respects.
“To be fair, he didn’t read the script. In the script, Bloody Mary is described as ‘small, yellow with slanted eyes.’ Even Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose intent was to write a show about race, were still subject to the limitations of their generation …
“I deliver the lines exactly as they were written … How else would a Vietnamese immigrant speak, learning English from sailors? In my opinion, to play her any other way would be racist, as if there is something wrong with English as a second language or something to be ashamed of. Bloody Mary says proudly, ‘Pretty soon I speak English good as any crummy GI.’
“Her humor, as I play her, doesn’t only come from the fact that her English is so limited, which is delightful at times, but mostly because you can tell how smart she is despite the language barrier. The Seabees make fun of her and see her as an obnoxious amusement, but she gets the last laugh every time.”
She is reminded of her grandmother, who was raised in Japan and came to Maui as a young woman. “She was a Japanese-school teacher. But at the outset of the war, when they whisked many of the teachers to internment camps, my grandmother went to work in the pineapple canneries, where she worked until she retired. So her English was always a struggle.
“When I was a kid, one day I asked my mom, ‘Why does Grandma keep telling me to walk around? Turns out my grandma was saying, ‘Wakaran,’ which is a pidgin form of saying ‘wakaranai,’ meaning, ‘I don’t understand.’ … These are the kinds of things I treasure about my grandma and where I came from and that definitely factors into how I play the character.
“My heart breaks every time before ‘Happy Talk’ when Bloody Mary is trying to convince Cable to stay and marry Liat and all she knows how to say is, ‘You like? You buy?’ Just like my heart breaks thinking about my grandmother trying to tell me she didn’t understand what I was saying … I, like the Seabees with Mary, had no idea how smart my grandmother was.
“And I don’t see Bloody Mary as a caricature or stereotype at all. In fact, the play is about challenging stereotypes and prejudice. As with all of the characters in the play, we meet them in the first act and we think we know who they are … But the second act forces you to go deeper, to see these characters as people and go with them on their journey as they choose love over prejudice. If people come away from my performance ‘offended’ by my interpretation, I think they’ve missed the point. But … if people are engaged in a discussion about race because of it, that’s great.”
From “Jesus Christ” to “Full Monty”
“South Pacific” is the only Rodgers and Hammerstein show Kimura has done, although “I love their work, particularly the old favorites, ‘Sound of Music’ and ‘Oklahoma,’ but those are predominantly cast Caucasian. The very first musical I saw was ‘The Sound of Music’ at a high school on Maui. Maria Von Trapp was a local Hawaiian girl, and I never doubted for one second that she was Austrian!”
Her all-time favorite musical is “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “I saw the movie … when I was a kid and I thought it was the best thing ever. Not only did I love the music and how they told the story, but to see Yvonne Elliman on the big screen was so cool! She is also from Hawaii and to see someone who looked like me doing this work was so inspiring. I got to play Mary Magdalene at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colo., and it remains my most treasured show experience.”
Kimura appeared in Tim Rice’s “From Here to Eternity.” “It was the director, Brett Smock’s, idea to cast Mrs. Kipfer as someone local to Hawaii. Mrs. Kipfer is the madam of the local brothel frequented by the soldiers. Originally, she was cast as Caucasian in the movie, the book and on the West End. But Brett’s idea was to ground the piece in Hawaii by casting me, and it was thrilling to be able to create this character from scratch … I had more questions when we finished the run than when we started, so I hope the show continues on and I get to be involved in helping to answer some of those questions.”
In “If All the Sky Were Paper,” based on real letters from soldiers and civilians affected by war all over the world, Kimura worked with Annette Bening at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, at the Kennedy Center, and in Santa Barbara. “One of the letters I had the privilege of reading was … from a woman, Tetsuko Tanaka, who at 16 was made to work in a war plant that made balloon bombs in Japan … One of these bombs had made its way to the U.S. and had lain dormant in a field in Oregon. Six children and their teacher were on a Sunday school picnic when they found it, and it exploded and killed them all.
“Ms. Tanaka was devastated when she learned of the tragedy and wrote the most beautiful letter of apology and expressing her deep regret for taking any part in the war, voluntarily or not. What an incredible honor it was to speak her words and it is probably the best thing I’ve gotten to do in my career so far.”
Kimura said of Bening, “I only got to work with her for one day each time, but to watch her work was incredible. The way a simple gesture like scratching her back could illuminate a whole lifetime of story was so inspiring.”
“Another Side of the Island” was Olympia Dukakis’ adaptation of “The Tempest.” “Olympia saw me in ‘Godspell’ and asked me to play Juno, one of the spirits. The three spirits appear throughout the play, ‘guiding’ the characters, and at the end, they perform in a pageant, in which I sang a song I wrote for the show. It was such an amazing experience …
“Olympia Dukakis was definitely one of my favorite actors to work with. She is not only an amazing actor, but a teacher by nature and she taught me so much both on and off stage. She was so generous with her time and wisdom and would often ‘teach’ me just sitting around on break. She’d take me along when she gave master classes and I got to see her transform student after student simply by giving them permission to first and fully be themselves. To this day, her words come back to me in various moments in life and in my work.”
In “Xanadu,” performed in South Carolina, directed by DJ Salisbury and based on the movie, Kimura played Melpomene, an evil muse. “By the time we were done creating this character together, I was being whiplashed across the stage on roller skates with a disco ball helmet and then with a walker, twirling batons. I don’t think I’ve laughed harder in my life.”
Another musical based on a movie was “The Full Monty.” “It’s not often at all that an Asian woman is looked at for this role, so I’m so grateful the artistic director, Betsi Morrison, who directed it at the Alpine Theatre Project [in Whitefish, Mont.], chose me. ‘The Full Monty’ is such a great show that has it all: it’s funny, got great music and has a huge heart. And the same is true for Vicki: she’s funny, she’s got some great songs to sing and, though you think she’s only into materialistic things, you discover that she has a heart of gold and just loves her husband.”
“Godspell” was her first show with the Alpine Theatre Project. “It was probably the most fun I’ve had doing a show … You are on stage dancing and singing the entire time and I played Sonia, who sings the fun and sultry ‘Turn Back, O Man.’ Everyone says it’s one of those shows that’s always magical the first time you do it and it was. I made lifelong friends there and went on to do four more shows and several concerts with ATP.”
In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” also at ATP, Kimura played Marcy Park, the child prodigy. “Marcy was a tough one for me to play since the key to her comedy is humor-less-ness! But I loved her braids and plaid dress!”
What musical would she like to appear in? “What I would really like to do is to originate an amazing role in an amazing new work. That’s the dream.”
Asians on Stage
Asian American stage actors have had difficulty getting cast in shows other than those that have Asian characters, and Kimura said this is still true today. “I mostly get audition appointments for things that specifically say ‘Asian’ in the breakdowns. Having directed my first show and had the experience of casting, I have a new empathy for how hard it is to think outside the box when you are just trying to make sense of the hundreds of new faces in front of you at auditions. To truly see past race, as a director, you have to be a) talented, b) brave and c) very confident, so I am so thankful when I come across the kinds of directors I have who continue to cast me in different things.
“I do think it’s changing — slowly. But as one astute friend of mine pointed out, the solution to truly getting more diversity on screen or on stage may be in getting more diversity in casting directors, talent agents, directors and producers in general.”
At the same time, she is thankful for the progressiveness of Rodgers and Hammerstein. “To write all-Asian shows like ‘King and I’ and ‘Flower Drum Song’ back in the ’50s was pretty earth-shattering and provided a lot of opportunities for Asian actors and still does today. It’s important to tell ethnic-specific stories and I hope more and more of them will get written and produced. And I hope we get used to seeing more diversity in non-ethnic specific shows, too.”
After “South Pacific,” Kimura will be working again with Brett Smock, director of “From Here to Eternity,” as Rosie in “Mamma Mia,” the ABBA musical, at Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival in Auburn, N.Y. Then she will reprise the role at Sacramento Music Circus, thanks to Glenn Casale, director of “South Pacific.”
“Rosie is traditionally cast Caucasian for no other reason than conventional perception, so I’m very excited to do something non-ethnic specific, and also to do something light-hearted and fun,” she said. “But I am little worried about dancing in platform shoes.”
Kimura hasn’t done any film or TV work, but is available. “Anyone who can get me in front of a casting director, let me know! I moved to L.A. recently to be nearer to family so it’s only accidentally that I find myself in the mecca of filmmaking and television. I’ve done a bit of voiceover work for Disney and loved it. Hopefully, I’ll get to do more of that … So much to do, so little time!”
“South Pacific” closes May 13 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Showtimes: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. ASL-interpreted performance May 12 at 2 p.m. Audience talk-back session May 9. Tickets: $20-$70. Info: (714) 994-6310, (562) 9801, http://lamiradatheatre.com. For more on the actress, visit www.jodikimura.com.