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A Place She Can Call Home

She wasn't sure she'd find it. But at East West Players, Emily Kuroda discovered a family of performers.

September 30, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

When Emily Kuroda was 26, she had accepted as fact that she wouldn't have a life in the theater.

Though she had earned bachelor's and master's degrees in drama at Fresno State (now Cal State Fresno), Kuroda had never been cast in a leading role in any of her college productions--in large part, she suspects, because she is Japanese American. Her advisors had steered her toward a teaching credential, but she hated that idea.

She had dabbled--and rejected--such subjects as engineering and nutrition before returning to drama, and now she had no idea what she was going to do with her degrees. She earned a living as a bank teller.

One day, Kuroda noticed a placard that advertised a performance by a touring company from East West Players. She had never heard of the L.A.-based Asian American theater company, but she was intrigued by its concept and excited by the performance that she saw.

Six months later, she moved to L.A. and joined East West. Within a year, she was cast in five productions and played a leading role in her third East West show, "The Avocado Kid."

Today, at 48, she is one of L.A.'s preeminent stage actors, has recurring roles in two network TV series, and had a prominent role in a recent HBO movie.

On Wednesday, she and two other actors will open the California premiere of Chay Yew's "Red" at East West's home stage in Little Tokyo. Kuroda plays a Chinese American romance novelist in the drama, which is set against the backdrop of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the '60s. Yew, who's also the director, is one of Kuroda's biggest fans.

"In person, Emily is very guarded," Yew said. "She holds it all in, in a very Japanese way. But on stage, all of these things come out like missiles. You can't help but be scorched."

Luis Alfaro, whose play "Straight as a Line" brought Kuroda a nomination last year for an Ovation Award, L.A.'s top theater honor, said she is ideal for "larger than life" characters. "I'd love to do an adaptation of 'Mother Courage' for her," referring to Bertolt Brecht's play about a scrappy, scheming war profiteer and survivor.

When Emily was a girl, no one would have thought of her as a budding Mother Courage, judging from her own self-assessment: "In grammar school, I didn't talk. Everybody said I was the invisible one. I'm still very shy."

Her Japanese American father's family had been sent to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz., during World War II. From the camp, young William Kuroda enlisted in the Army, trained in military intelligence, and spent much of the war in India. After the war, he was assigned to Japan, where he met Kazuko Shindo, who would become his wife, Kay Kuroda. They married after William brought the family back to the United States in 1950.

As a child, Emily lived at the family farm on the outskirts of Fresno, washing and helping pack the tomatoes, green beans and eggplant. She still has "a farm girl aspect," Yew said. "She's very down-to-earth. No pretense."

Her parents spoke Japanese to each other, but she was not allowed to do so. Her mother told her that her older cousins had problems in school because of their accents.

High school exercises in forensics, oral interpretation and drama provided a way for Emily to emerge from her shell. "I loved it, because I could say other people's words. There is a safety in being removed," she recalled. She directed "Blithe Spirit" in high school, but "they wouldn't let me act. They didn't tell me why. I just never got cast."

Although she was cast in chorus lines during college, "at no point did anyone say I could be an actor." Actress Miyoshi Umeki ("Sayonara" and "Flower Drum Song," and the TV series "The Courtship of Eddie's Father") was her idol. But generally she didn't see many Asian faces in the mass media, so she was prepared to accept her career limitations--until East West came along.

Not that the abundant acting opportunities at East West provided her with an immediate way to make a living. The company was then housed in its longtime 99-seat space on Santa Monica Boulevard, between east Hollywood and Silver Lake. Not only were the actors unpaid, but they had to pay $40 a month in membership dues. Kuroda worked as a picture framer and also received $200 a month for handling East West's publicity and marketing from 1979 to '81.

To Kuroda, East West was home. "We pretty much worked there seven days a week. We even had sewing calls, because we had to make our own costumes." Mako, the group's longtime artistic director, told the members: " 'If there is anything else you can do in this life, you should do it.' But it was addicting. As far as finding myself and what I want to do, I found it here." She also found her husband, actor Alberto Isaac, at East West--they married in 1980.

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