[LITERATURE] Philip Kan Gotanda - Playwright & Provocateur
- Philip Kan Gotanda: Playwright and Provocateur
Japanese American National Museum website
"We're all beings in flux, in continual invention and reformation."
Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda says in the preface to his new
book. "The artist can by the simple act of attention make an action
in the direction of keenness, relevancy and liberation."
In No More Cherry Blossoms, a collection of four plays set in
different decades, Gotanda explores the choices and challenges
Japanese American women face in periods of transition. The works
display the playwright's flair for dramatizing thought-provoking
"I was secretly an FOB ["fresh off the boat"]." the character of
Eiko -- a Japanese American female -- says in The Wind Cries
Mary. "When I made fun of others I was really making fun of
myself. You hated me? I hated me more."
Set in 1968, The Wind Cries Mary was inspired by the work of Henrik
Ibsen. Gotanda says he adapted Ibsen's Hedda Gabler "to explore the
social restraints imposed on an Asian American woman born into the
world as an âoriental' just as the world was moving toward the new
idea of being a liberated Asian American woman." The play offers a
brutal look at contemporary issues. When asked about the
psychological and physical violence in the play, Gotanda
says, "Violence is inherent in the situations. After all, we are
ultimately capable of anything. That's what makes us human."
Also evocative in The Wind Cries Mary, Gotanda's "favorite play for
now," is his use of music. "I'd been wanting to do something about
the 60's using all my favorite music. And so I did. Lots of Cream,
Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Them." Using iconic music to set the
tone, Gotanda shades character and personality, and demonstrates
conflict in a complex, rewarding work.
"You think because I don't talk all the time, I'm looking down at
you," the character of Hideo in Sisters Matsumoto remarks. "Maybe
it's got nothing to do with you. Maybe my silence is not silence at
all but an angry shout I have to keep locked up inside. I was a
good son. I did what my parents asked me to do."
In Sisters Matsumoto, Gotanda explores the subject of "class" within
the postwar Japanese American community. Lead characters Grace, Chiz
and Rose, who were accustomed to wealth and community standing,
discover their beloved father had been cheated out of his farm
during the war and try to cope with their new circumstances.
"(Socioeconomic status) is something people sometimes overlook,
focusing on race as the only factor," Gotanda says. He also notes
that cultural differences also lead audiences to react in widely
varying ways to his works.
Gotanda recounts how "in Boston, a Jewish man, said that his family
would never be so unresponsive and unemotional as the characters
were to the events of the day in Sisters Matsumoto." As a writer of
Japanese American stories Gotanda says he "struggles with the fact
that many times an audience can perceive as bland, without
commitment and boring a Japanese American response to a
"As far as I was concerned the sisters were bleeding all over the
stage," says Gotanda.
Gotanda dedicates another featured play, The Ballad of Yachiyo, set
in 1919 rural Hawaii, to the memory of his aunt. Yachiyo Gotanda,
who lived from 1902 to 1919, was a relative whom his father never
spoke about. In the play, the character of Yachiyo comes of age and
falls in love with a skillful but alcoholic potter who is married
and dependent on his wife. Gotanda uses the arduous process of
pottery making preparinng the clay, the failed pots, building the
right kiln, the intense fire as a dramatic metaphor.
As a creative talent who has worked in many art forms -- including
pottery -- Gotanda strives to keep an open mind about the ways in
which he finds inspiration.
"What I try to do is get up each day and give my body the chance to
speak." Gotanda writes in No More Cherry Blossoms.
Through his plays, films, spoken word, and performances, Gotanda
speaks powerfully -- and has earned a well-deserved place in the
international world of theatre.