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COVER STORY

Honoring the Past, Looking to the Future

L.A.'S East West Players has set the standard for Asian American theater throughout the country. Now it has a new home befitting its reputation.

March 08, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

If the old saw about not judging a book by its cover were applied to theaters, East West Players would've been the troupe for which it was coined. Housed for more than three decades in Silver Lake quarters as modest as its achievements were profound, America's oldest Asian American theater was nothing if not easily missed.

But those days are over. For the pioneering 33-year-old company, which for years has been housed in a no-frills 99-seat made-over warehouse, has now relocated to the former Union Church in downtown's Little Tokyo, marking the difficult transition to mid-size. The centerpiece of the renovated landmark facility, now known as the Union Center for the Arts, is the 220-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre, which opens on March 18 with "Pacific Overtures."

East West Players raised $1.7 million to finance the remodeling of their portion of the $3.4-million renovation of the 1923 building, which also houses the nonprofits Visual Communications and Artcore Gallery. East West's lead donors include playwright Hwang's father, Henry Hwang, who gave $150,000, and George and Sakaye Aratani, who gave $160,000 and for whom the building's courtyard is named.

Yet impressive as East West Players' expansion may be, it is matched by the track record of a theater whose impact has long been more than mid-sized. In a city where companies come and go--where living in the shadow of the entertainment industry means struggling for audiences and to keep casts intact--it is one of only a few ensembles to have made it past the decade mark, let alone to three and counting. And while countless L.A. theaters survive under Actors' Equity's sub-100 seat plan--which allows them to pay union actors only the equivalent of expense money--it's both rare and remarkable for such a group to overcome the financial hurdles that stand in the way of the move to mid-size.

East West Players' success is, of course, preceded by that of its alumni. Along the way, East West Players has proven an invaluable nurturing ground for several generations of theater artists. Indeed, the majority of today's best-known Asian American theater, film and television talents--from playwrights Philip Kan Gotanda and David Henry Hwang to such actors as John Lone, Sab Shimono and Amy Hill--have passed through East West's doors.

"They did my first piece, a musical called 'The Avocado Kid,' in 1979," recalls the San Francisco-based Gotanda ("The Wash," "Ballad of Yachiyo"). "They gave me my first shot. I was very aware that Asian American theaters existed. But for their existence, I don't think I would have entertained the idea that I could write a piece."

Equally important, East West set an example for other institutions. The country's other major Asian American theaters--including San Francisco's Asian-American Theatre, New York's Pan Asian Repertory Theater and Seattle's Northwest Asian-American Theater--were all founded during the '70s, on the model of East West's early success.

Since then, countless part- and full-time producing companies in North America--from Toronto's Can-Asian/Sansei North Productions to Chicago's Paper Angels Productions--have also looked to the East West beacon. And the fact that today there's a Web site called the Asian American Theatre Revue that lists several dozen such companies can be directly attributed to the ground broken by East West Players.

"I wasn't consciously working to establish a model," says veteran Broadway and film actor Mako, who was the company's first artistic director and leader until 1989. "What we were trying to do, consciously, was to be honest with ourselves, learning to cope with elements that were surrounding us, such as racism and discrimination."

It began in 1965 with a shoestring staging of "Rashomon," at USC's Hancock Hall. The production was put on by a group of friends, united in their common frustration with the limited opportunities then available for Asian American actors in Hollywood.

"The work that we were getting was really not complete characters," recalls actress Beulah Quo. "The roles were more or less atmosphere."

In addition to Quo and Mako, the group included Rae Creevey, James Hong, June Kim, Guy Lee, Pat Li and Yet Lock. Their "Rashomon" was well received and subsequently transferred, first to the University of Judaism (then located on Wilshire Boulevard), and later to the Warner Theater on La Cienega Boulevard.

Ironically perhaps, it didn't take long for Hollywood to come knocking. "Robert Wise came to see ['Rashomon'] when he was casting 'Sand Pebbles,' " recalls Quo. "He cast a number of us. Mako had a good role and was nominated for an Oscar for that, and James [Hong] and I ran a brothel for the sailors."

But the siren call of the film world didn't spell the end of the East West Players. On the contrary, recalls Quo, "It was Mako's idea that we've got to keep this going."

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