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Q&A

SAB SHIMONO: The 'Winds' of Cultural Change

May 19, 1991|SUSAN KING

As part of Asian Pacific Heritage Month, PBS' "American Playhouse" is presenting the drama "Hot Summer Winds," a one-hour adaptation of two stories from Hisaye Yamamoto's anthology "Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories."

The drama, airing Wednesday, was adapted and directed by Emiko Omori, and explores the changing relationships within a Japanese-American family living in California's Salinas Valley in the 1930s.

Sab Shimono stars in "Hot Summer Winds" as Teruo ("Tex"), a simple, traditional Japanese father and husband who grows frustrated and angry when his wife and small children grow apart from him.

Shimono is a third-generation Japanese-American who has appeared on Broadway in the musicals "Mame" and "Pacific Overtures," in such films as "Come See the Paradise" and "Presumed Innocent" and the movie and TV versions of "Gung Ho."

The actor talked with Susan King.

"Hot Summer Winds" is based on a series of short stories by Japanese-American author Hisaye Yamamoto. Were you familiar with her stories?

To tell you the truth, I wasn't until I got the project. She writes really nice. She leaves things hanging where the reader fills in the blanks. She lets you sort of explore where you want to go with a character.

The dialogue (in the drama) is very minimal, so as the actor I filled in the blanks with reactions with my body and eyes.

Does having a minimal amount of dialogue make it difficult for an actor to create a character?

Depending how it is written, it is a gift for an actor because he can do anything he wants. I didn't have to remember that many lines for one thing (laughs) and it is the type of acting where you play a moment.

Is Teruo an angry man?

He's a man who can't express himself verbally. He probably comes from a family that keeps to itself. I think the way I played it he was clinging (to his Japanese roots).

I think he is sort of like my father. He was in the Japanese ghetto in Sacramento and never moved out. In his culture, the man was always the boss. And all of a sudden, people were asking the question "Why?" It was very difficult for my father. I remember when you asked him "Why?," he didn't know how to answer that. When you say "Why?," you are also saying "No." I used to do that with my father and he would get angry. I would say, "Why do we have to speak Japanese when we are in America?"

It is not the expected thing for a father to hear from his child. We had that cultural conflict because he stayed with his Japanese thinking. Also in this particular case, because of the war, it just reinforced him being Japanese.

Did you research the lifestyles of the Japanese-American farmers in the 1930s?

Well, in a way I was familiar with it. I used to spend my summer vacations at my uncle's place, which was a chicken ranch in Petaluma. We had a Japanese bath outside and the same isolated situation. We had the whole family working, pitching in. We ate cheap food like tripe.

Did you live in the Japanese relocation camps during World War II?

I was in camp.

Was it difficult for you then to make "Come See the Paradise," Alan Parker's movie about the camps?

For me, it wasn't difficult. I was very, very exhilarated in that the story was finally being told on the big screen. It's an important story that all Americans should be aware of so it won't happen to any of us again.

It did bring back sort of a deja vu, in that when Alan Parker set up the camp that brought all the elements back to me like the dust, the horizons, the barbed wire fence, the towers. The question I asked was how could we have lived in the desert and faced the elements for 2 1/2 years knowing the fact that yesterday we were living in a house? To me it was mind-boggling. If it was me today I don't think I could take it. Maybe I would go crazy.

But that generation was already knocked down because the Japanese were not welcomed. They were considered aliens. I did question my father and mother and asked them how come they didn't do anything, but now I understand where they were coming from.

You have been acting for 30 years. Are there more and better roles available today for Asian-American actors?

I have been acting a lot, but the material has not been too good. The characters have been very one-dimensional. I would say it's getting better. I just went to a reading for something that will take place in Russia and the character was quite rich.

It is a contemporary movie. The role was considered for a white actor, but then the director and producer said, "There are Asians in Russia. This might be interesting to cast an Asian."

Louis Gossett Jr.'s Oscar-winning role in "An Officer and a Gentleman" was originally written for a white actor. Have you ever been a cast in a role where your race was never mentioned?

No. The curious thing is that I have worked with a lot of important people--actors, writers and directors--and you would think that hopefully they would say, "He did a good job. Let's put him in this project." But that hasn't happened.

"American Playhouse: Hot Summer Winds" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KCET and Friday at 9 p.m. on KPBS.

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