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COVER STORY

Tapping Into East West's Energy Source

Artistic director Tim Dang leads the group toward its opening production in Little Tokyo.

March 08, 1998|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

In 1980, a young actor named Tim Dang joined East West Players, a group that was recommended by one of his teachers at the University of Southern California, where he had just graduated.

Arriving for the first time at the ramshackle East West headquarters, near the eastern end of Santa Monica Boulevard, Dang asked a bald man--who was sitting out front and "looked like he was guarding the place"--for directions to the person who would accept Dang's first dues check. The man silently pointed, and Dang went inside.

After paying his dues, Dang was immediately sent to meet the "guard" out front. The bald man was in fact Mako, the company's co-founder, longtime artistic director, Academy Award nominee.

Mako, who "always looks like he's going to chew your head off," in Dang's words, coolly assessed the newcomer. The veteran actor then told Dang how rough his chosen road was, as an Asian American actor in Hollywood. And after a few minutes of conversation, he pronounced Dang a "banana"--yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

Or at least that's how Dang remembers it. "I was speaking well, but I didn't know anything about Asian American theater," Dang says. "So in essence I was a white person."

Nearly 18 years later, Dang has learned a thing or two. Since 1993, he has been the artistic director of East West Players, America's flagship Asian American theater company. And now, more than any other individual, Dang's in charge as East West ventures away from its 99-seat theater on Santa Monica Boulevard to its new mid-sized home in Little Tokyo--and to a much more prominent position on the L.A. cultural landscape.

Dang, by himself, was the entire East West staff during much of last year--after others were laid off in a reorganization designed to cut costs in the dormant period just prior to the big move. Now the staff has begun to rebuild, but Dang is still doing just about everything--including directing the new theater's opening production, "Pacific Overtures."

Don't worry, he can do it all, contends Lynn Fukuhara-Arthurs, president of East West's board and an enthusiastic Dang fan. "He sings, he acts, he manages, he raises money, he's never late," she exclaims. "He's the glue that holds all this together. There is something magical and contagious about Tim. If it were any other artistic director, I wouldn't be there. The board trusts him implicitly."

Even when she and Dang disagree, she says, "he bounces right back. He's very mature about taking constructive criticism."

"I am in awe of what he has done, business-wise," Mako says. "I tend to shy away from political problems. Tim tenaciously pursues them."

Mako doesn't remember calling Dang a "banana" on the day they met, but he acknowledges that he may have warned Dang about his banana potential. In Dang's first years with the group, when Mako was his acting teacher, Dang "was a good student, but he had a difficult time grasping what is Asian American, how we express our point of view as opposed to the establishment's," Mako says. "It was a matter of relearning, reexamining, starting from zero."

Dang is the first to admit that "we weren't told a whole lot about our culture" when he was growing up in Honolulu. He was fourth-generation Chinese American on his mother's side, and fifth-generation on his father's. "My parents didn't know how to speak Chinese--only the food and the cuss words," he says.

During World War II, his mother drove a truck at Pearl Harbor and his father was in the military, stationed on Guadalcanal. In Hawaii at that time, "you wanted to be as American as possible"--or at least not Japanese. "People wore buttons saying 'I Am Chinese,' " Dang says.

His father became a Shell Oil executive and his mother a court reporter. Staunch Catholics, they sent their four sons and one daughter to parochial schools. At St. Louis High School, Dang first went on stage in a musical version of "Everyman," followed by roles in "The Bald Soprano," "Godspell" and "The Drunkard."

Applying for college ostensibly as a math or physics major, Dang made sure the schools also had active theater departments. He chose USC not only because he got a full academic scholarship, but also because of USC's proximity to Hollywood. His housing was paid for by his brother Peter Dang, who's now a top Hollywood marketing executive (the upcoming "Godzilla," the Power Rangers).

Soon, Dang abandoned math and science, and he graduated in theater arts. He began trying to make a life as an actor, initially supporting himself for five years at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Hollywood, working his way up to head waiter.

As he began tackling Hollywood auditions, Dang soon realized that most of the available roles for young Asian American men were as gang members or butlers. "That's what showed me what East West is all about--to develop roles and writers that we otherwise might not get to play," he says.

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