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Prince of Changing Tides

Thai-American playwright Prince Gomolvilas creates comedy aimed at a new generation.

July 05, 1998|Don Shirley

His first name is Prince.

At age 25, he's the second-youngest playwright ever to receive a full production from the 32-year-old East West Players.

The title of his play isn't shy: "Big Hunk o' Burnin' Love." Opening July 15, it's the first nonmusical to play East West's new, larger home, Little Tokyo's David Henry Hwang Theatre (which is named after the "M. Butterfly" writer--the youngest East West playwright ever).

With that kind of buildup, it wouldn't be surprising if Prince Gomolvilas affected as flamboyant a style as, well, the artist formerly known as Prince.

But Gomolvilas, at least on the surface, seems a long way from "Purple Rain." He's genial, thoughtful, quietly witty.

"He looks like this little Thai guy, meek and quiet," said Paige Kissel, a friend from the playwright's days at Monrovia High School. However, she added, with his friends "he's obnoxious and obscene and funny."

He didn't choose to be called "Prince." It was attached to this U.S.-born son of Thai immigrants when he was entering kindergarten in Indianapolis. The teacher couldn't handle his first name, Khamolpat, or even his nickname Bin. Trying to pronounce the latter, she came up with "Prince," and it stuck.

"It has been my cross to bear since I was 5," Gomolvilas said. But he keeps it because "the last name is bad enough. You gotta give people a break."

The Western-sounding first name also reflects the spirit of "Big Hunk o' Burnin' Love." It's an American comedy first, a Thai American comedy second.

The leading character, Winston--an Anglo name nonpareil--is a second-generation Thai American. But his best friend, Nick, is Chinese American, and Nick's wife, Sylvia--a former love of Winston's--is white. Winston's parents speak a few lines of Thai in the play, and they want their son to marry a recently arrived immigrant, but Winston resists.

East West artistic director Tim Dang had been looking for plays from outside the Japanese and Chinese American communities. "The only Thai plays we ever saw were mostly by Caucasian men, and mostly about the sex trade," Dang said. "We passed. We didn't want to stereotype people from Thailand as hookers."

"Big Hunk" was different. "It explored a new culture for us, but it was still universal. It was very accessible," Dang said. It also addresses concerns of younger Asian Americans, who "are more assimilated."

"Identity is not the issue any more. We're just people, living in the ethnic mix. We're not trying to stick to our own kind." Dang hopes the play will draw younger audiences to East West.

Winston's central issue is something Gomolvilas shouldn't have to worry about for a few years: turning 30. The normal anxiety surrounding the birthday is intensified by Winston's parents, who tell him of a family curse that befalls single men in his family who turn 30--they spontaneously combust. Hence the title's "Burnin'."

No such curse was talked about in Gomolvilas' real family, said the playwright. But "the idea of a family curse is a metaphor for the ties we feel to our own families and the obligations we feel, which is more so in traditional Asian cultures than in America."

Still, why is someone who was 22 when he started writing "Big Hunk" so obsessed with turning 30? "One of the few times I don't procrastinate is in finding things to be depressed about," Gomolvilas replied. "I have friends who sank into a deep depression both before and after turning 30."

At his day job--he's an editorial assistant at Callboard, published by Theatre Bay Area, a San Francisco theater support organization--"I never brought my own coffee cup. Instead, I gravitated toward this one that was already there that says, 'Look who's 30!' It just beckoned me. No one else touches it."

This is someone who admits to "reading one self-help book after another. I make fun of Deepak Chopra, but I love him. Maybe if I write a self-help book some day, it might break the addiction."

A conversation with the writer's mother, Shirley Gomolvilas, sheds some light on the subject of self-help without recourse to books.

In 1969, using money her mother had borrowed, she followed her Thai boyfriend--a doctor--to America, where he felt he could make a better living. He didn't know she was coming--"I wanted to surprise him," she said. She arranged to stay with a friend in Indiana, thinking it couldn't be that far from her boyfriend in Ohio. It was farther than she had expected, figuratively as well as literally. The romance soon fizzled.

"I decided to stay because I could help my mom by working as a nurse's aid and sending money home," she recalled. But she soon figured out that she could make more money as a waitress in a Polynesian restaurant in Indianapolis. She also rebounded in her personal life, marrying a fellow immigrant, hospital lab technician Somchai Gomolvilas, within barely a year after the big breakup.

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