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tv   [untitled]    August 28, 2010 5:30am-6:00am PST

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called chet monkawa and he was what was known as a no no boy. at some point everyone in the internment camp was asked to do this questionnaire and there were two questions, question 27 and 28, which basically said you were foreswear allegiance to japan and the emperor and will swear allegiance to america and that you will serve in the armed forces. and for young neisei men in their late teens and 20's, if you signed that, by and large the sense was you could be drafted. and what came about was a certain amount of controversy over those two questions because a lot of things were floating around. one of the arguments, and that's my character, we're locked up. we're in prison and then i'm asked to sort of go out and sort of, like, defend this country while we're all locked up? on top of that, i'm supposed to, like, divorce myself from
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allegiance to a foreign emperor of a country i've never been to and i have to swear i am an american when i thought i was always an american? there was a great deal of controversy in the camps and difference of opinion. so my character is one of those individuals who signed no, no. that's a form of protest. and because of doing that, he is taken out of the camp that he's in and sent to tule lake where most of the troublemakers were sent. then he gets out of camp and he comes back to san francisco and what happened in the japanese american communities is that many of the young men signed yes yes. many of them went off to war and became part of the 442nd, the 100th battalion, the mis, military intelligence, and were extraordinarily heroic and died
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in very high casualty rates in europe. and so when chet comes back to san francisco, those people who signed no no were looked upon as cowards. they were traitors. they sat out the war where these other people died. everyone a friend, an uncle or somebody they knew who had died, lost an arm, or was killed in service. chet comes back and he is literally spit on by his own community. so my protagonist is someone who is an ex-jazz musician, who spent his adult years playing with black groups, he comes back to san francisco at a time when japan town is still sort of unraveling from this sort of who lives here, who doesn't live here, and he wants to find japan town again, find his own sort of home while at the same
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time around him his own community is looking at him as if he is a traitor. so as he says and used to say in the play, i'm on the outside of the outside. my country thinks i'm a criminal, my own community thinks i'm a traitor. how does he sort of find home for himself in america given that kind of a set up? so that's where the stories all kind of converged and my central character, where he came from and his journey and his -- his journey, what he has to go through during the course of the play. >> this central character, chet, is a very interesting one. i gather during the process there were some events that happened in contemporary news concerning a certain japanese american left tenant or aaron wataga >> yeah, lieutenant aaron wataga >> could you talk about how
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that story influenced your process and your writing of this play? . >> as i worked with the question of the no no boy, this whole thing with lieutenant aaron pataga who was a japanese american lieutenant who refused deployment to iraq. he said i'll serve anywhere else, but i refuse to go to iraq on the grounds that he believed it's unconstitutional. he is in the process of being court martialed, i think most recently there was something like a mistrial and i don't know if he's come up again. but what's interesting is that the lieutenant aaron wataga case as it played out in, quote, the ethnic newspapers, japanese american community, has brought about sort of what i think is a similar response to the no no boys in that he is being viewed not by all, but certainly by the military groups, the ones that were extraordinarily brave, the 442nd, by some of them as a traitor and as a coward.
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lieutenant aaron wataga should serve. and what's interesting is, again, it's the same type of thing. it's been a very devicive split in the community. he is an individual who embraces being japanese american who chooses to refuse deployment on the grounds that it's not constitutional. he is inordinately bright and articulate and a poster boy for being sort of the u.s. soldier but he believes, after talking to soldiers coming back, that it's wrong. it's very similar to my central character, chet. as this went on in contemporary news it fed on where my central character became bolstered. that's what happens when you are writing a play. over a period of 3 1/2, 4 years things happen in your personal life and in the world around you that continue to sort of feed into the play.
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so the no no boy aspect, i just gave him a speech a couple days ago where he says, because i really want to bring up the issue and make it relevant to contemporary times. he says, doesn't anybody care what happened? they took away our rights. doesn't anybody care? is the constitution just a piece of paper that means nothing that the president can sign another piece of paper and then we lose our citizenship and they can do whatever the hell they wanted to us? it's wrong, it was wrong then, it was wrong now and i don't care what kind of questionnaire it is, i'll sign it no no and i'll yell it at the president, i'll yell it at roosevelt, i'll yell it at general dewitt and it matters. it has to matter. and to me it's the speech i gave him was in part all just drawn from what's happening i think in the country right now in relationship to the war, who is considered patriotic, who is
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considered a traitor, and the point of a play to me is that it isn't just a museum piece, that in fact it does have relevancy right now and that it does kind of spark a certain amount of controversy in relationship to what goes on now. so that's how things that are happening in one's life feed into it. other things feed into it, too, like my wife and i have been trying to build this house in the berkeley hills for about 5 years so all of that also kind of feeds into the play even though it may not surface in the way the characters are building a house, but it may be something about money that comes up in the play but actually was drawn from our financial struggles trying to build this house in the berkley hills. but it also sort of shows you how real life intrudes into your work and how we either can listen to it and put it into it
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or try to ignore it. i usually choose to sort of put everything that's going on around me in the world when i'm reading what i find intellectually curious into the work, no matter what the story is. >> so let's turn our attention a little bit to these characters you have created, 9, i think, characters, all very extremely different from different backgrounds. you spoke just now about wanting to find an authentic voice for each of them and working from the inside out. so how do you go about creating specific voices for a jewish russian character by way of yokohama, for an african american character, for all these different characters? i know you worked with specific actors. did they help at all? what was the process there? . >> absolutely. in terms of the african american characters, i wrote this piece initially for the
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act core company and i thought it would be a great challenge to actually write a play for the core company and the core company has two african american characters and i had tailored two of the characters for steven anthony jones and gregry wallace. it's interesting that gregory wallace, an african american man, was supposed to play mr. oge, an excentric neisei who likes literature. i thought it would be an interesting thing to do. but after a while we did a reading and we realized as good an actor as gregory is, it was pushing his limits for him to play a japanese american character in the late 40's. >> i imagine him as being much older. >> in the course of writing the
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play and using various actors, he became younger. this chinese actor is more like a character in his mid to late 30's, excentric, a career bachelor who is into russian literature and who fashions himself kind of patterned after the japanese artists of the 30's and 40's. he has round sort of glasses and a braid. but getting back to the question of creating characters, for example african american characters, i'm also caution -- i had written another play called johann that was about an african american gi and a japanese wife that got married in post war japan. i wrote that play 20 years ago. i wouldn't do it for about 8 years or so because i just
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didn't feel comfortable about being a japanese american writing an african american character. you have to think about, too, this whole idea of political correctness has both an up side and a very bad down side. one of those is people tend to be very cautious and not want to try things like that. i eventually through my relationship with danny glover pulled it out of my drawers -- out of the drawer, desk drawer, and read it and danny was instrumental in saying, let's do this. let's just do this. but, again, it was me working with some african american actors and i actually had it vetted by august wilson, read it and checked it out for me and there's another fellow who wrote soldier's story, charles fuller, took a look at it for me.
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i wanted to make sure my bases were covered. but this new play, what i did was, i feel comfortable writing the characters, but you are never sure. one thing that happened was steven anthony jones helped me a great deal with the african american character. we took it to sundance and what happens when you go to sundance is you bring some actors and some are given to you. i hadn't worked with the actors who we teamed up with at sundance, both excellent actors but people we didn't know so we didn't have a working relationship. there were moments where we worked where i could tell that the fellow, in particular, wasn't happy with his character because i had him standing there while the african american character went on and on. finally he said, phillip, i would not stand there and take that crap.
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the moment he opened his mouth, i would say stop. okay. so it wasn't contentious but what it was that area of discomfort. racial politics are very tricky this day and age and if you want to really address certain things, you have to go to that area of discomfort and you have to go to the area beyond discomfort of being slightly offensive of each other. as long as you are in a context of trust and say this is an art piece we are working on, we are working for the truth of the characters, at sundance i worked with two, in terms of the african american actors, two generous actors who were willing to, with myself, kind of spar a bit to make sure that what we ended up with was a truthful character and a truthful relationship between the african americans and the asian american characters and that it was one in which both
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were speaking truth to truth. you know, one character wasn't just a sounding board for the other, that in fact truth talking to truth, right versus right. that's difficult to construct and it's difficult to sort of do if you want to get into what i call in house versus outhouse talk. in every community you have what goes on inside your own community versus outside of it. someone like charles barkley who will say in house stuff and embarrass other african americans. what i try to do is write what is normally said inside that world because that's where you get into the juicy stuff. that's where the african
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americans were elevated at sundance and it's only because i've worked with these actors and i continue to work with african american actors who give me a lot of feedback on their characters. women always do this to me, too. there was one workshop we did, an actress, african american actress, michelle shay, said to me, phillip, an african american woman would protect her man's manhood. there's this interracial romance that happens, black man, white woman, and how this is all viewed. she said how she felt her character had to really stand up to protect her man and as a consequence it became part of the play. the african american woman will not tell earl that his wife has
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actually left him already and run off with another man. she doesn't tell him that because she's trying to protect his manhood. those are things i think if you are a smart playwright, you really take advantage of your very smart actors and your very smart directors. again, this thing where it's always coming down it ego. at sundance, in every rehearsal process, i like being part of a very generous workshop. if you were in there you would say, wow, it's pretty free-wheeling. for example, you have 9 characters, 9 story lines that all are trying to be pieced together so they all are introduced, they all intertwine and at the end they are all resolved in some form or fashion. it's a delicate architecture.
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as we were in rehearsal process, i really rely on actors to kind of say at some point you have tweaked something here, but my character on this part of act 2 no longer is in the right place. so we have to pay attention to that. so in the rehearsal process, it's very democratic up to a point. i talked to cary recently, said i think it got to a point there's so much stuff that i have to keep in my point i need to sort of cull it down a little bit and make it more specific because the point is, everything is in my head and if i'm throwing stuff out and putting stuff in, whatever comes out or goes in has to stay part of this architectural plan that i have in my head so that it always stays structurally sound. so that's been an interesting process and a good one. we're just in the stage now where i think we're at the end of our second week.
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i didn't think i'd be doing as much rewriting as i have. i've done a tremendous amount of rewriting and we've actually reordered scenes and normally if you are doing that, it means you are in trouble. it's what i call chasing the play. if you are chasing the play, trying to find its story, that's not a good thing. i've gone through that and it's really horrific because you can't find the story, you have a bunch of characters and a bunch of plot points but you can't find it so what you do is keep writing different things and try to find the ending and make it end up right. that's simply hellish. that is awful. i'm pretty careful now that by the time i go into rehearsals the play is usually done. but it's interesting is i thought this play was done done and it's turned out to be quite plastic still in the best possible sense, literally to take a scene from act 2 and put
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it into act 1, did that, and to -- just a lot of interesting things are still happening. but it's making the play better in a very concrete way. it feels very different. everything is about making the play tighter, getting of any kind of excess stuff. you really have to kill your darlings in that you have all this great dialogue that i wrote maybe 3 1/2 years ago that just has to get basically thrown and cut off and taken away because in the end it really is -- less is more and if you can make a scene sort of happen with less speaking, it's better. in fact, we just did one today where we now have the kind of whole play ending with -- you'll see, when you see the play, you'll see if we still have it. we have chet playing his horn, just playing his horn, kind of a bluesy jazz thing.
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that's supposed to speak to where else at that moment at the end of the play. as i watched it, i thought of some stuff we cut before. he used to say simple things. i come into your house, you come into mine. trust, that's all, just a little trust. i thought that would work really well. but i sort of brought it up and everyone was saying, no, if -- the music seems to say it all. i thought, well, that's right. if the music can say it without any words, then that's what we should go with. so that's a moment where hopefully if you have lined everything up correctly, at that moment that chet pulls out his or not after he's a blow out with earl and everyone, he pulls out this horn and it's the first time he plays, it's whatever he feels at that moment and sums up where he's at at the end of the play.
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that's what we tried today. the tricky thing is it's a built of a stretch of reality. ever have a character in theater ever pick up a horn and play who is not a horn player? unless you do it right, it always looks phony. i had originally scripted the play so that we wouldn't have that problem. i thought i'd come up with a clever sort of solution and that is his love interest, lillian, goes and gets the 78 and plays it and while she's listening to it, chet has his horn for the first time, kind of fingers it but he doesn't actually play it. yet we hear him playing 5 years earlier on the record. it's a way of hearing him without the mime playing. anthony brown, who is a composer, is going to get a
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horn player to play something that is good but it's also someone who hasn't played in a while so it's a bit rusty. that's kind of tricky, but it had to be that because it couldn't be anything too complicated. he couldn't come up with this extraordinary riff set that made everyone kind of stand up and cheer. it had to be this sort of ragedy and yet truthful and sum up everything that's happened in the course of the play. but that's anthony brown's problem, not mine. >> so, anyway, i guess we should open this out to everyone out here. i'm sure you've got some questions that you'd like to ask phillip, so i'll be happy to take questions from the floor. over there in the red. >> can you explain again why the no no boys were rejected by the japanese community? i can understand if they said that they did not want to -- if they answered no no that the caucasian community would
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reject them, but i'm not sure where the japanese community rejected them. i felt like they were making a stand for the community. >> i think what's happened in the last 15 or 20 years as we've looked back on history and the community has looked back on it, it's able it look at these characters in a different light, through a different lens. they are seen now in people who in their own ways made heroic choices. at the time, again, i didn't live through it, but my sense is in having talked to people, the 422nd battalion, these people went out and they were killed in very high rates. these were your fathers and brothers. i think it by and large was true, they were trying to prove that they deserved to be americans, it prove to the country that we belonged here, that we didn't belong behind
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these barbed wire fences. and they did. they did that and they paid with their blood. i think that was sort of the general feeling of the community. our brothers, our fathers, our uncles, our sons, paid with their blood, literally, not figuratively, literally, so that we could be americans and live our lives and get out of camp and just go about our ways. so i think it's because it was such a heightened state and so much like -- to do with life and death that those who -- and they were in a minority who had signed no no were treated as if they had, in fact, kind of turned on their own people. their brothers went off to war and died trying to prove we were loyal and here you did something which made us look disloyal. here you did something which made us look bad. so as a consequence of your bad
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behavior, maybe more boys had to die. maybe we had to work even harder. but i think it was because of the extreme circumstance of the time and the stakes were incredibly high that you did have a community that looked at these men as if they had, in fact, turned against their own community and had worked against those who had served and died. and that was the case. i know it's still a problem now. i have a friend who is a no no boy and he talks about how, even now, 60-something years later, there are people in the community who won't talk to him because he was a no no boy. but, again, it's through the lens of present day politics, how we've begun to look at the events and studied them that the resistors from heart mountain who were another group
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who on constitutional grounds contested being -- serving. they refused to serve, as opposed to the no no boys, who signed no no. the resistors actually went to federal prisons. they went to leavenworth. they are now looked at and studied and interviewed in a much different light, even though in the community itself there is still strong feelings and deviciveness about how they should be viewed. a lot of my research was pulled from the no no boys and resistors was pulled from the japanese american national museum. my wife and i went down there and they have on file a bunch of interviews with people, frank ami, a variety of folks who were part of the heart mountain resistors and also the no no boys. these interviews were done by frank chen, frank abe and other folks and they are all on file. i used those to make sure i
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created real live characters. hope that answers the question. >> who else wants to ask a question? . >> when you do research, are you able to compare the (inaudible). >> i have to admit i haven't done as much research into that area because there were germans also who went through the same thing and no i didn't. that certainly is a story that should be looked into. i know in my early works, a character would say why didn't they do this to the germans and italians but at the time i wrote this play, i wasn't aware that the other things were going on in the country also. so i don't know a lot about that. . >> is there any one or any group that you studied in particular for your sort of art
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piece japanese artist character? . >> no, but i feel like i sort of have it inside of me, my body, that i've actually played this type of character in one of my films where he wears very odd glasses and has a bow tie and fashions himself as a bit of an intellectual. he actually represents a kind of character that you do find in the community and in communities, someone who is sort of outside of it, marginalized, who is part of the community yet he's never fit in. he's a bachelor. his interests are very un-japanese american. he can't find relationships with a female, he's been introduced by the marriage broker and it doesn't work. but in fact his character, if he were in present-day society, he would be gay.
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it's sort of interesting and in fact the character whom i wrote it for, gregory wallace, is a gay actor. it's sort of interesting, francis jew, who plays him now, is gay. but you have a type of character who at a particular point in history had to sort of play out a different role but if he were in present day society, he would be, you know, gay and living life and going about his business. so that is sort of interesting about that character. . >> yes, gentleman here. . >> do you think with all the writing and examination of relocation camps that the country has actually learned from the experience, what it's done to the extent that it wouldn't

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