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MinaSama-No: the young life and hard times of an ethnic community theater

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There was not a slice of sashimi nor a sliver of Hunan-peppered anything in sight, but that didn't keep it from being a typical Asian American spread: Popeye's fried chicken, potato chips, and Pepsi. Across the paper plates seven pairs of eyes met in a gaze that for me was anything but inscrutable. I recognized a stare veiled with respect, revealing little, part eager, part cautious, a polite, probing look exchanged by variants of a single species. These midwesterners descended from the same transplanted Far Eastern stock as I, their West-coast counterpart.

The occasion was a June meeting of the MinaSama-No Theatre Company, the only company in Chicago producing Asian plays for Asian actors. The group was planning a production for the following weekend as part of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago's annual Natsu Matsuri, or summer festival, in Uptown. As a journalist researching an article on regional ethnic theater (which gave me a convenient excuse to visit Chicago and meet my mother's side of the family, a kind of Roots a la japonaise), I'd been invited to sit in.

As we lounged around the redwood table in board member Tina Adachi's backyard, we talked, ostensibly about the differences between Asian American theater on the west coast and in the midwest. But what struck me most was the realization that the minidrama of MinaSama-No's short history spoke loudly about the development of "community" and how such a consortium of people, bound by the simple fact of ethnicity, struggles to express itself. Theater is, after all, a social medium, a formal story telling that is as much collective consciousness raiser as entertainment. Hearing about this group's development reminded me how much we all had in common culturally, yet how much our regional histories had affected our cultural development.

To begin with, I was surprised to learn that MinaSama-No (the name is a Japanese word meaning "everybody's") had been formed just four years ago; that it had staged only four major productions; and that it operated primarily with a company of amateur actors. In San Francisco, the Asian American Theater Company has been around for 15 years, originally under the auspices of the American Conservatory Theatre there. In the early 70s, Asian activists had persuaded ACT to set up training programs for minority actors, and to include them in casts. As a result, there's a larger pool of trained Asian American actors to draw upon, although the other end of the balancing act--good roles that avoid geisha girl and kung fu stereotypes--remains scarce. So the Asian American Theater Company and the East West Players in Los Angeles have concentrated on providing work for Asian American actors by presenting contemporary works by Asian American playwrights such as Philip Kan Gotanda, Genny Lim, and David Hwang. Over the years, they've managed to build racially diverse followings, indicating that the issues they address strike a common chord among Asian and non-Asian viewers alike.

To a large degree, the longevity of Asian American theater on the west coast reflects the region's longer Asian American history. San Francisco was the entry point for thousands of Chinese laborers who came to dig the gold mines and build the railroads; for the Japanese who arrived to pick the strawberry crop and start small truck farms; for the Filipinos who came to work the fields of the Central Valley. Though they compose just 10 percent of California's population, Asian Americans possess a sense of ownership on the west coast. They are a proudly visible and vocal minority.

In Chicago, on the other hand, "there isn't the same amount of organization in the Asian American community," according to Adachi, who in addition to serving on MinaSama-No's board covers art and entertainment for WLS radio and is a contributing editor to Today's Chicago Woman.

"In the midwest, Asians are much more in the minority. We stand out just by virtue of being part of a minority group, and no one wants to call attention to themself. Compared to the coasts, it's much more conservative here."

Most of the Japanese population, she pointed out, arrived in Chicago after being released from the barbed-wire internment camps where they were held during World War II. The camps, a source of silent shame, were also a catalyst that propelled the Japanese Americans to prove their "assimilability."

MinaSama-No's theatrical director, Marc Rita, a second-generation Filipino Hawaiian, noted that most of Chicago's Filipinos are white-collar professionals; his mother immigrated to complete training as a doctor while his father earned a degree in engineering. Like Rita, the other members of MinaSama-No grew up governed by a simple rule: Try to fit in; don't rock the boat.

"I was very Americanized," he recalled. "I didn't know another Asian on a daily basis until I was in the eighth grade, when a boy from the Philippines came to my school. We weren't friends, though; he was very much culturally different from me. Although now I realize that our family structure and the way we communicate is very Filipino, as children we were never told anything about the Philippines. We heard no stories, we weren't taught the language. I think my parents suffered from prejudice when they first got here; at least it was enough to hurt them, to make them feel they didn't want us to have the stigma of an accent. They didn't want us to stick out from everyone else."

As did most Chinese immigrants, actor Quincy Wong's family came from a small village, and tended to associate only with others from the same place. "It meant that there really wasn't much cohesiveness among the Chinese here," he said. "People tend to stick to themselves. I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly Jewish."

That didn't make for much of a market for even traditional ethnic theater, such as Chinese opera, although church groups remained purveyors of these forms. A genre of theater that explored the meaning of being Asian in America was a long time coming for practical as well as artistic reasons. "Asians just don't become actors," said Adachi. "Partly because there's not a lot going on artistically in this area that provides roles for Asian actors, but also because they're encouraged to enter white-collar professions."

Thus it was that in 1979, when an education student turned actress, Shuko Akune, decided to gather a group of Asian American actors into an ensemble, she had to put the idea on hold for three years. "At the time, there just weren't enough Asians working in theater to get anything off the ground," said Rita.

But Akune, who'd been cast in her first role without an ounce of formal training, then dropped out of school over her parents' strenuous objections to pursue acting full-time, wasn't about to let a little thing like a lack of players divert her.

"Four years ago she decided the time was right, called about eight people, and that's how MinaSama-No started, over a pot of tea in Shuko's living room," said Rita.

Marc Rita is a slender wire of a man vibrating with a barely contained intensity. Except for a generous sprinkling of gray hair, he looks far younger than his 30 years--something he tells me can be a problem when casting Asians in general. "When you have roles for older characters, and you have actors in their 30s who look like kids, it's hard to make them believable." Rita and I were in a coffee shop in Evanston continuing the discussion of a few days before. He remembered that first gathering at Akune's vividly.

"It was very exciting, very intriguing. It was also awkward. I remember how strange if felt, just because no one wanted to be outspoken. A lot of us had no confidence. We'd been brought up to keep quiet, to stay in the background. None of us wanted to make a bad impression, so no one wanted anyone else to know what we were like. And here we were, suddenly thrust into a position where we had to make a commitment, take a stand. It was scary."

Rita cracked a wide, easy grin at the memory of a theater company in which no one wanted center stage. "Only a few of us had any theatrical background at all," he explained. In addition to Akune, Rita was working as house manager at the Organic Theater; Dan Kobayashi, another MinaSama-No founder, was master electrician with St. Nicholas Theater. The rest were students in various disciplines.

"At first, MinaSama-No was just a comfortable situation. It offered us a chance to sit around and talk about ourselves. It was home, a kind of surrogate family. As time went on, we found ourselves becoming more friendly, more aggressive."

The first two years they were something like a theatrical encounter group; there were a couple of readings, a reviewing of scripts by Asian American authors, but no productions. Meanwhile, Akune secured a spare office at the Japanese American Citizens League headquarters for meeting and rehearsal space. The move, in August 1984, coincided with a decision to mount an original work, an adaptation of a familiar Japanese folktale.

"Stuart Gordon [then artistic director at the Organic Theater] gave us a shot," Rita said. Gordon lent the Organic space for a one-night benefit performance of Urashima Taro, a Rip Van Winkle-type tale of a young man who befriends a sea tortoise, is invited to keep company with an underwater princess, and later returns to his village to find everyone else has grown old during his absence. The company had about $800 garnered from weekly dues to bankroll the project.

"I love doing stuff with a little bit of money," Rita twinkled gleefully. "We cast out of the company, including one teenage girl who was the sister of someone Shuko knew who wanted the girl to stop hanging around on the street with her friends. It was primarily a lighting and costume production. We had great costumes made by a woman named Zianne who's since disappeared off the face of the earth; the last I heard she was living on a religious farm in Iowa. Publicity was word-of-mouth, but the response was tremendous. The Organic has about 365 seats. We'd oversold, and ended up with people literally sitting in the rafters."

After expenses, the group found their bank account had expanded fourfold in a single night. "We suddenly had more resources and more connections, too," said Rita. "The Asian community was very excited about seeing a group of young Asian Americans perform. There was great high energy after that first production."

There were growing pains, too. Immediately after Urashima Taro made its debut, Akune boarded a plane for Los Angeles to work on E.R., a short-lived TV series inspired by the Organic hit.

"That left only a few of us with any theatrical knowledge--and no practical experience in running a company," sighed Rita, who'd become, in the de facto manner of volunteer nonprofit groups, the company's artistic director. "I had the responsibility for eight other people on my back, and it's difficult enough to manage a company when you're just learning how to speak in front of other people. Everyone had different ideas about what our next move should be, and there were big questions about who should make those decisions. Some people wanted to stay small and community based, others wanted to see more professionalism."

Rita admitted he was one of the latter, advocating regular workshops and training sessions for the cast. "The discussions burned us out. Finally, I decided to put my foot down."

Rita paused and thought about it, then went on. "For me, it was a process of learning what it was like to deal with other Asians. When there's a problem, they tend to shut up, to not want to say anything negative. I had to learn to speak out, and people thought I was rude, overwhelming, and pushy."

Eventually, Rita left MinaSama-No and moved to Los Angeles for a year, where he "didn't do much of anything that had to do with theater."

In addition to a postpartum malaise and a culturally induced reserve in thought and action, MinaSama-No faced the same obstacles as every other small theater--limited funds, time, and staffing. The group did a few benefits, conducted sing-alongs for Japanese seniors at the Heiwa Terrace retirement home, appeared at JACL gatherings. Early in 1986, they staged an ambitious original work in progress, partly as self-induced therapy to heal flagging morale. Autumn/Spring, written by the company's Keith Uchima, dealt on one level with the conflict between two generations of a Japanese American family adapting to a changing Chicago neighborhood.

"But the interesting thing is that the title was supposed to reflect what the piece would do for the company," Rita said. "It was supposed to revive it, help it be reborn."

It was an idealistic mantra, and it worked. "The production was very successful, playing to capacity audiences every night. But again, like before, at that point autumn came back." Rita shrugged acceptingly. "Keith, who had to do everything, did an excellent job--such a good job it put him in the hospital with exhaustion. But I'm beginning to see that developing a new theater company is like life. You have to have the patience to see the crises through until you come back to a good part of the cycle."

One of the good points was MinaSama-No's acceptance by the Organic Theater into the Organic's Greenhouse Project, which provides free storage and rehearsal space along with some technical support. Their next move was to attempt their first outside script. Yellow Fever, a detective spoof by the Canadian Rick Shiomi, tested the group's divided sensibilities, barely making it to the boards a year ago, according to Rita.

"Shuko came back from LA and pushed the show through," he said. Reviews were lukewarm. Aside from flaws in the script (the play didn't fare well on the west coast, either), many critics pointed to the lack of professional training on the part of the cast. Reader critic Anthony Adler made the telling observation: "MinaSama-No is trying hard to move from community to professional status; I think they're making a mistake . . . it's OK to be small-time when small-time is where they need you."

It's a point that Marc Rita spends a lot of time considering. Last December, he came back to Chicago to direct a revised version of Autumn/Spring, which again played to sold-out houses. He's resumed his role as MinaSama-No's theatrical director, but confesses to mixed feelings about his job. While he hasn't changed his mind about wanting the group to pursue a more aggressive path in establishing itself as part of Chicago's burgeoning theater community, he recognizes its importance as a grass-roots force.

"Eventually, I'd like to see us producing artists," he said. "We need writers, tech people, dramaturges, if we're going to create a viable Asian American theater here, but you have to teach those things. We're not at that point yet; most of the company, I think, has the mind-set that the way you learn is an individual thing; people aren't interested in putting on workshops or pursuing something more formal.

"I realize that what I want is maybe eight or ten years down the line. For now, it's important that MinaSama-No become a vital part of the Asian American community, a way for the different factions in the community to speak through us."

About half the 15-odd members of MinaSama-No are Japanese. The others are Chinese, Filipino, and Korean, and Rita talked about developing new scripts on issues important to those populations in Chicago as well as to the Japanese constituency. "That's where we've found the most support," he explained, "so we've tended to concentrate our energy there. But I'd like to see us address Asian issues, not just those of a particular group.

"Right now, only 3 percent of the population sees any kind of theater at all. Why should we be fighting for that little share? I think we should be developing a whole new audience. Traditionally, there's been a lot of white theater available. We were something new and interesting on the market. Maybe we're a way to unite the Asian community through theater."

That would be no small task, but if anything characterizes the Asian psyche, it's the notion that no territory is so foreign as to be overwhelming.

"There's a lot of impetus for the group to create opportunities for Asian Americans," said Tina Adachi. "A lot of people like Shuko leave here to go to the east and west coasts, where they can get work. We want to encourage color-blind casting to create more roles for minority actors, as well as creating plays about the Asian American experience in which Asians can play themselves. Our purpose is to serve the Asian American community and tell their story."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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