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A `Surfing' samurai

Jodi Long's poignant one-woman show is a humorous journey of self-discoveries and `an exploration of where we come from.'

October 27, 2006|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

When actress Jodi Long takes the stage for the premiere of her one-woman show "Surfing DNA," the spirit of her ancestors will speak through her performance. The most poignant voice, perhaps, will be that of her father, Larry Leung, a Chinese Australian tap dancer who performed in the original production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song."

Leung, 87, died in New York on Oct. 14 after telling his daughter not to leave rehearsals at East West Players to come back for a final visit because "the show's got to go on."

Two days after Leung's death, Long was in Chinatown on a search for one of the show's props, a retractable tai chi sword. Stopping at a restaurant for tea, she talked about the journey that led to the play's creation and the man who inspired her to act. "My father had a stroke 21 months ago and was paralyzed on his left side, which was difficult for him as a tap dancer and golf pro," says Long, who lives in Los Angeles and New York. "I wanted to go back last week, but he knew I had this show and told me not to come."

She pauses a moment, but there are no tears -- just the deep breath of a daughter at peace with her father's passing, a peace achieved because the battles between them had been resolved before his death.

There were the usual generational differences of opinion between father and daughter, then there was the competitiveness of two performers, each wanting his or her way of performing on stage to be recognized.

"My mother [Kimiye Tsunemitsu Leung] saw how hard it was for my dad to be an entertainer and was incredibly afraid for me," says Long, remembering how her parents reacted to her desire to enter show business. "But my father said, 'Let her do what she wants to do,' and I made my Broadway debut at age 7."

That debut, in "Nowhere to Go But Up," led to roles in Stephen Sondheim's "Getting Away With Murder," "Loose Ends" and "The Bacchae." Other stage credits include Wendy Wasserstein's "Old Money" at Lincoln Center, "Hamlet" (as Ophelia) and Philip Glass and David Henry Hwang's "1,000 Airplanes on the Roof." She also has many TV and film credits.

Examining roots

The role of Madame Liang, which won her an L.A. Ovation Award, was in the 2002 revival of "Flower Drum Song" at the Mark Taper Forum, which then moved to Broadway.

The day after "Flower Drum Song" closed at the Taper, Long did her first reading of "Surfing DNA" for 15 people at the Taper's Asian Theatre Workshop.

"Chay Yew ran the program and encouraged me to write this," Long says. "The show is an exploration of where we come from. It's about different parts of my background, but the themes are universal."

In the show, Long plays her great-grandmother, who was Scottish; her grandfather, who lived in a Japanese internment camp during World War II; both her parents; a Chinese man who was influential during her childhood; and herself.

Then, of course, there's the tai chi sword.

"One of the reasons I started writing this play was because I started finding things out about my family that helped me to see the patterns of my life," Long says.

"I was so interested in tai chi and had been in the practice quite a few years when I visited an uncle in Portland. He told me that we were samurai and that my family were sword makers, a huge revelation to me.

"Growing up, I rejected everything that was Japanese and Chinese because I so wanted to just be American. As an adult, when I listened to myself, it became apparent there's an imprint in me coming out, despite my American persona."

The interplay of genetic heritage and environment swirled through Long's mind as well as the challenges to success that confront Asian American entertainers. "I wanted to dispel some ideas about Asian American actors in TV and film," Long notes, adding with a hint of sarcasm, "because even in films like 'Memoirs of a Geisha,' they had to hire 'real' Asians, and not Asian Americans, because we can't play real Asians. I want people to know that we, as Asian Americans, can do it all as actors."

Both of her parents, who were divorced, saw the play workshopped at readings in New York, and her mother, now 85, will be in the audience opening night. Long says her parents were proud of the legacy of the Chop Suey circuit and their own stories, which are captured in the play.

Lisa Peterson, a resident director at the Center Theatre Group four years ago, attended Long's first reading of "Surfing DNA" and signed on to direct the show.

"I've known Jodi for some time and was really struck by her play," she says. "I don't do many one-person shows, but the mix of the unusual backstage stories and the serendipities that made her who she is really were wonderful."

Peterson says the play explores how our ancestors stay alive within us, and Long takes the audience on a dramatic, humorous and poignant journey of self-discovery.

"There's a real strength and fearlessness in Jodi," Peterson says.

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