We recently lost a very special lady. Momoko Iko — talented, eccentric, one-of-a-kind, poet, writer, playwright.
As a child, the forced incarceration at Heart Mountain concentration camp with her family of eight reverberated through her future writing. After her family was released from camp in 1945, they became migrant farmworkers in New Jersey until they moved to Chicago.
Momoko began writing poetry, essays and fiction, and graduated from the University of Illinois with a BA In English (with honors). According to her autobiography, when she saw Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” she realized the political capabilities of drama.
She moved to Los Angeles in 1970. Her first play was “Gold Watch.” The “Asian American Playwrights” biography credits Momoko Iko as the first Asian American woman to have had a play produced in the continental U.S.
“Gold Watch,” set in 1941-42, deals with a Japanese American farm family and community forced to leave their homes shortly after the commencement of WWII. The play is an early call to break the silence and end the shame surrounding incarceration (Uno). The central figure, Masu Murakami, is a complex character who proudly refuses to accept charity even as his family struggles. He desperately wants the respect of his son, who wants to return to Japan.
When the community is told to move, Masu becomes the leading force of resistance. Eventually, he is killed while fighting nightriders, and the son is left holding his father’s broken body and clutching the gold watch given to him by his father, a bitter legacy of Masu’s failed dreams of America. Ironically, it is the tragedy of this lost dream, initiated by racism, that finally links the two men. (Lee)
I knew of Momoko, but didn’t actually get to meet her until Mako introduced us in mid-1970s. I was working at KCET-TV, the PBS station for L.A. and Southern California. Mako was the artistic director of East West Players, which was located on Santa Monica Boulevard, which was just a hop, skip and a jump away from KCET’s studios.
KCET had won a $20 million grant – really big money in those days – to produce “Visions,” an innovative drama series that proposed to seek out and produce original drama written and developed specifically for television. It was a breakthrough concept at that time. I was brought in to read and evaluate scripts. It was my first television job.
As a public broadcasting station, there was tacit understanding (at least on my part) that there would be diversity in the “Visions” productions. Black directors like Lloyd Richards were brought in for “Freeman,” with Lou Gossett, Dick Anthony Williams and Bill Duke. (Note: We were shooting “Freeman” just as Alex Haley’s “Roots” hit the air and became a smash hit; and Lou Gossett suddenly became high-profile. It was really kind of exciting.)
Another piece, “Tapestry,” was written by Maya Angelou and starred Glen Turman (who married Aretha Franklin the following year). And there was even a short film starring Morgan Freeman.
There were two strong Latino productions, “El Corridor” by Luis Valdez and Teatro Campesino; and “Alambrista” starring Edward James Olmos.
Looking back, it was an exhilirating moment in time when these actors of color were just coming into wider recognition.
But there was not yet an Asian production. Even though this was my first television job, it was a fairly close unit during pre-production, and I had direct access to our executive producer. She was very open to an Asian production; and I could readily “back up my play” by bringing in strong scripts from Asian playwrights like Momoko Iko and Wakako Yamauchi.
Our executive producer, Barbara Schultz, loved “Gold Watch.” Schultz had been flown in from New York to head up “Visions,” and she wasn’t aware of East West Players nor of the many talented actors in our community. When she met Mako, that sealed the deal.
The set of “Gold Watch” was a happy one, and the production ran smoothly. Mo did a great job adapting “Gold Watch” from a theatre script to television. She consulted on the casting, along with Mako; and “Gold Watch” featured talented actors including Mako, Robert Ito, Jesse Dizon, Soon Tech Oh, Phillip Baker Hall, and Richard Narita. She was on set every day, and was respected by the crew.
“Gold Watch” aired nationwide Nov. 11, 1976, earning rave reviews from The L.A. Times and Washington Post.
In 1978, Momoko helped establish PAAWWW – Pacific Asian American Women Writers West. The purpose was “to foster and sustain the artistic development of women writers of color; to promote, perpetuate and preserve Pacific Asian American literature, history and arts; to develop larger audiences for artistic endeavors of Pacific Asian American women writers.”
It began as an informal gathering of writers and other artists including actresses who wanted to see scripts written for Asian women, and learning how to write those scripts. I joined PAAWWW shortly after (I think – my memory is not that good anymore). But I do remember that I set up PAAWWW’s first reading, which took place at the AmerAsia Bookstore.
I was already in awe of Momoko as a playwright, and being in a group with Wakako Yamauchi made it doubly awesome. Mo was also a poet. She had one poem that I loved – there was a stanza celebrating a breeze blowing through the jacarandas – which she pronounced “hawka-ron-das” with a rolling “r.” I still love the way that word flows. Jacarandas. I used to catch her eye at events and mouth “jacarandas” to make her crack up.
I lost touch with Mo over the years until Joyce Nako brought some of the former PAAWWW members together to do a reading at Far East Lounge two or three years ago. Although physically not as strong, Mo was feisty and opinionated as ever.
She still recalled back in the KCET days when, out of the blue, I invited her over and cooked her a dinner of smothered pork chops. And I always remember hanging out at her place drinking and playing bid whist with her and her partner for life, Jimmy McCloden.
Goodbye to another Woman Word Warrior.
Haiku for Momoko
A son’s precious gift
Hidden in a pants pocket
His father’s gold watch
Father and son, farm to camp
A wartime ago
Love, strength and history
Through the lens of his Gold Watch.
Rest in peace
Miya Iwataki has been an advocate for communities of color for many years, from the JACS Asian Involvement Office in Little Tokyo in the ’70s, through the JA redress/reparations struggle with NCRR while working for Congressman Mervyn Dymally, to statewide health rights advocacy. She also worked in public media at KCET-TV, then KPFK Pacifica Radio as host for a weekly radio program, “East Wind.” She can be reached at [email protected]. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.