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[THEATER] John Ridley & the play "Ten Thousand Years"

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  • madchinaman
    The play s the thing, at last Writing for film and TV brought John Ridley riches, but reviving one of his old stage projects brought deeper rewards. By Dinah
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 10, 2005
      The play's the thing, at last
      Writing for film and TV brought John Ridley riches, but reviving one
      of his old stage projects brought deeper rewards.
      By Dinah Eng, Special to The Times

      John RIDLEY'S worn a lot of hats as a writer — novelist,
      screenwriter, journalist and commentator — but no project has given
      him as much joy as penning his first play, "Ten Thousand Years," a
      story of war from the perspective of Japanese pilots during World
      War II.

      To understand why a successful black writer in Hollywood would spend
      more than $45,000 of his own money to mount this production, you
      have to go back to the late 1980s, when Ridley was a student at New
      York University, majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures.

      "Back then, Japan was economically strong, and Americans were afraid
      they were going to buy out all the factories, and we'd all be
      working for Honda," says Ridley, sitting in his office on the
      Universal Studios lot. "People were demonizing the Japanese, like
      they treated the Arabs and OPEC in the 1970s.

      "I'd always been interested in World War II and would watch these
      old movies about it on late-night TV. I noticed that the ones about
      the European theater distinguished between Nazis and the good
      Germans, who helped the Allies. But in movies about the Pacific
      theater, it was only about crazy, evil kamikaze pilots."

      After college, Ridley began writing for TV sitcoms,
      including "Martin," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "The John
      Larroquette Show." Later, he moved into drama, as a writer and
      producer for "Third Watch," and creator-producer of "Platinum."

      He leans back on the couch, relaxed and open, wearing confidence
      like an unscented cologne.

      "It was OK, and you make good money, but TV writing can be very
      limited, so I started to write this play," says Ridley, who put on a
      reading of the work in 1997. "Kipp Shiotani was in it, and the
      reading was pleasant, but I didn't really do anything further with
      it. Four years later, I met Kipp at a party, and he asked about it.
      So I pulled it out and decided to rewrite it."

      Ridley, who looks back at the first version of "Ten Thousand Years"
      as a shallow reflection of its current incarnation, wanted to
      explore the issues all young men grapple with when they go to war.
      While the story is set in Japan in the 1940s, the language is now
      contemporary English, and the emotions evoked are timeless.

      "Kipp and his wife, Jennifer Aquino, had done a lot of theater and
      knew how to mount a show," Ridley says. "I had this blood money I'd
      made in Hollywood, and we started to work on it. Then 9-11 happened,
      and I thought no one would want to hear about why young men would
      give up their lives for a cause. I was in New York on 9-11, and I
      didn't want to deal with it."

      But as time went on, the three continued to work on the play,
      holding more readings, and the material seemed increasingly relevant
      in a world where suicide bombers may make their presence felt at any
      time. So last fall, Ridley decided to put the work on stage and
      booked the El Portal Forum Theatre in North Hollywood.

      While Ridley emphasizes the universality of the characters'
      experiences in the story, those who portray the young aviators feel
      a special pride in the roles they are playing.

      "My ethnic background is Japanese, and seeing a play that put a
      human face on Japanese characters during World War II was really
      exciting to me," says Shiotani, who serves as director-producer and
      plays the flippant pilot Tanaka.

      "My father's brother, who was born in America, went back to Japan to
      study before the war. He was conscripted into the Japanese army and
      was forced to fight Americans. It took him 13 years to get back to
      the United States after the war. People never hear about these

      There's even a difference, he notes, between kamikaze pilots — who
      knew that they would die when their planes were shot down so would
      steer their aircraft deliberately into an Allied target to do the
      most damage — and ohka pilots, young aviators selected to fly
      specially designed airplane bombs on suicide missions toward the end
      of the war.

      Breaking stereotypes

      The pilots in "Ten Thousand Years" are members of an ohka squadron,
      and Ridley has given each character a life rich with nuance. Cast
      members note that roles for Asian American male actors are few and
      far between in Hollywood.

      "In an L.A. venue that's not specifically East West Players or the
      Asian theater workshops at the Mark Taper Forum, it's very unusual
      to have a play with an all Asian American cast," says Reggie Lee, a
      seasoned film and TV actor whose stage credits include the Tony
      Award-winning 1994 Broadway revival of "Carousel."

      Ridley's play, Lee says, breaks stereotypes that society often holds
      about Asian Americans.

      "There's someone in it who's deathly afraid to die, someone who
      wants to go on the mission, someone who's analytical, and someone
      who's very emotional," he says. "My character (Hanai) is a kid who's
      been beaten all his life and told that he's not worthy. He feels he
      has to die in order to prove that he's enough."

      Ridley, whose wife is Asian American, says he is perhaps more
      sensitive to the problems facing Asian American actors because of
      his own experiences as an African American writer. The author of six
      novels, Ridley has written several movies, including "Undercover
      Brother," "Three Kings" and "U-Turn." He recently completed a
      rewrite of "The Night Watchman" for director Spike Lee and is
      executive producer of a new TV series, "Barber Shop," scheduled to
      air this fall on Showtime.

      "I went through a phase where every script I was offered was a 'Boyz
      N the Hood,' " Ridley says. "The guys and girls involved in this
      play are incredibly talented. Without them, the play's just a 97-
      page paperweight."

      Matthew Yang King, who portrays the base commander Yoshida, has
      appeared in numerous plays, including Sir Peter Hall's "Romeo and
      Juliet" at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2002 and Broadway's "Titanic, the

      "There are more opportunities for Asian Americans in theater than TV
      and film," King says. "It's tough for Asian American females, but
      the stereotypes are harder for actors. The Asian American male
      hasn't been made sexy yet. This play has given me a chance to dig my
      teeth into something new. It's historical drama that represents
      Asians as real human beings."

      In a city with hundreds of small theater options, Ridley
      acknowledges that attracting an audience to this play hasn't been
      easy. "People in L.A. don't go out the way people in New York go out
      to theater," he says. "If you live in Culver City, you think twice
      about having to drive forever to get to the Valley. It's hard to get
      the word out past all the noise."

      Ridley says there are no immediate plans for the play beyond its
      current run. "I think it'd be a mistake to try to do a movie or an
      off-Broadway production right now," Ridley says. "But I'm very
      committed to the material. Other than writing books, which is so
      insular, this play has been the most rewarding experience in art
      I've ever had in Hollywood. On opening night, we had people crying
      when they left the theater. Success is when you feel good about the
      work you've done, and that's what this play was about for me."
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