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AN APPRECIATION

Like ripples in the water

As a performer and as co-founder of East West Players, Mako set many changes in motion. The benefits keep accruing.

July 29, 2006|David Henry Hwang | Special to The Times

In 1965, there were no Asians in America. At least according to Hollywood, there were only Orientals: Japanese and Korean enemies, mysterious foreigners crammed into exotic Chinatowns, geisha girls beguiling American servicemen abroad, Charlie Chans, Fu Manchus and the cook on "Bonanza." To the movies, an Oriental was Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Luise Rainer in "The Good Earth" or Marlon Brando in "The Teahouse of the August Moon."

Yet in 1965, a young actor named Mako believed Asians did exist in this country, and he spent his life proving it, not only through his most acclaimed performances -- his Oscar- and Tony Award-nominated roles in, respectively, "The Sand Pebbles" and "Pacific Overtures" -- but also in the everyday jobs of a working actor -- from "McHale's Navy" to "F Troop" -- where his talent and dedication consistently managed to elevate stereotypes into fully realized human beings.

Had Mako's achievement been limited to his own performances, we would be remembering him today as a brilliant artist and pioneer. But he was also a fighter and activist of extraordinary vision and courage. In 1965, he co-founded East West Players, the nation's first Asian American theater, and served as its artistic director until 1989. Suddenly, Asian actors were not simply looking for work, they were taking control of how their stories would be told. It was natural, then, that under Mako's leadership, East West evolved from an actors' theater into one that also nurtured new playwrights, thus giving birth to a literary and artistic movement. Though the invention of Asian American theater was a collective act, Mako was its center, its heart, its founding father, the glue that held all else together.

My own story is typical. My mother was the piano accompanist for one of East West's earliest productions, Gian Carlo Menotti's operetta "The Medium." Dragged to rehearsals as a child, I spent time mostly running around underfoot, but the experience taught me early on that Asians could be theater artists. Years later, as a college student, I started writing plays. Mako had initiated a playwriting contest, which encouraged me to tackle Asian American themes. East West gave me a summer internship, in which I reupholstered seats and watched sets being constructed. When my first play was slated for production in New York, Mako was tapped to direct. He called me up: "There's someone who'd be good for your play. Come down to the theater and meet him." I showed up at East West's then-home on Santa Monica Boulevard, where he introduced me to a young actor named John Lone, who would later find fame in the title role of Bernardo Bertolucci's film "The Last Emperor."

More than any other theater I've known since, East West Players under Mako's leadership felt like a family. Sometimes, this was true in a literal sense, with his wife, Shizuko Hoshi, his daughters, Sala and Mimosa, his sister Momo, all remarkable talents in their own rights, busily working on productions. Like all families, there were the inevitable quarrels and rivalries and heated arguments, but even these were made possible by an overarching sense that we were all in this together, searching for a voice that had not yet been heard in the American theater. At the center of it all was Mako -- passionate, exacting, more fun than just about anyone to drink and eat and swap stories with: our benevolent patriarch. This freewheeling environment was exactly what we needed to dream big dreams, to experiment, to fail -- and to succeed. Mako knew this, the same way he knew so much about his own world, and about the future. With his unforgettable mix of warm smile, raspy voice and steely commitment to excellence, he was difficult to dislike, and impossible not to love.

Just last month, East West Players hosted the first ever national Asian American theater conference. Almost 200 attendees from three continents, representing dozens of theater companies, gathered as testament to the movement's explosive growth and its potential for the new century. At one point, thinking of Mako, whose illness was then known, the director Judith Nihei commented, "None of us would be even here, if not for that man."

Mako's life touched that of every Asian American theater artist, whether he or she knew him or not; when he passed away on July 21, we all lost a colleague, a friend and an ardently supportive father. Moreover, anyone who has ever attended an Asian American play, or watched Asian actors perform onstage or onscreen in recent decades, has seen the work of Mako. He lives, not only through the roles he played himself but also in those played by others, and those yet to come.

Goodbye, Mako. Thank you for helping us find so much of ourselves. We will miss you, even as we see you everywhere.

*

David Henry Hwang is a Tony Award-winning playwright whose works include "M. Butterfly," "FOB," "Golden Child" and the musical books for Disney's "Aida" and "Tarzan," and the Broadway revival of "Flower Drum Song."

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