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A Conversation with Aya Hashiguchi Clark on the Past, Present, and Future of Japanese-American Theater

'Yohen,' by Philip Kan Gotanda. Production photos from Dukesbay Theater.

by  Tamiko Nimura

Given COVID-19 circumstances, the state of live theater in America is changing radically in 2020–but it is also changing because of the social uprisings and racial reckonings. Veteran Tacoma producer, actress, and writer Aya Hashiguchi Clark has had much to say lately around these changes, and I wanted to find out more about her perspectives.

Tamiko Nimura (TN): The last time we spoke, in 2015, you and your husband Randy Clark had just founded Tacoma’s Dukesbay Theatre, an independent theater company advocating for multi-ethnic representation. How have things gone for you since then?

Aya Hashiguchi Clark (AHC): Dukesbay Productions was founded in 2011, and we moved into our permanent theatre space, the Dukesbay Theater in 2013. Things have been going quite well for the theatre. When we founded it, we had no idea if the concept of an ethnically inclusive theater would even fly in the Pierce County region. We are so happy that it has!

We have done a combination of ethnic-specific shows, which highlight BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) characters and stories (such as 2017’s “Calligraphy,” by Velina Hasu Houston, and 2018’s “Yohen,” by Philip Kan Gotanda) and more “mainstream” shows (such as 2015’s “The Night of the Iguana,” by Tennessee Williams, and 2019’s “Proof,” by David Auburn) that were intentionally cast with BIPOC actors in lead and supporting roles. All these shows were received favorably. Gradually, our audiences have grown. We are very grateful.

TN: Understanding that live theater has changed drastically in 2020, what have been some of the biggest rewards and challenges, pre-COVID-19 times?

AHC: In 2019, Randy and I were honored by the City of Tacoma when they awarded us with the AMOCAT Award for Community Outreach by an Individual. (I guess in our case, it was by two individuals! LOL [lots of laughs]). This award is Tacoma’s way of celebrating diversity and inclusion in our city’s arts landscape, since the other organizations that were honored also have DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) as their mission. It is also the biggest honor I have ever received in my life. Again, I am grateful that equity in the arts is becoming more high profile in our town.

The biggest challenges still remain finding, recruiting, and nurturing BIPOC talent. There is a perception among many theatre companies that BIPOC actors don’t exist, or are very hard to find. Yes, it does take a little more effort to meet them and invite them into our work. But they are out there, and ready and eager to perform. I just wish the larger theatre companies in town would expend that extra energy to invite BIPOC artists into their spaces.

TN: How have you and Dukesbay explicitly addressed issues of representation in your writing and producing? Can you point readers to some examples of casting, producing, writing in these arenas?

AHC: I have to admit that showcasing Asian American talent and stories is a bit more of a priority for me, being that this is close to my heart and life experience. Asian Americans rarely, if ever, see themselves represented on the stage. When I first began doing theatre years ago, directors and theatre administrators who realized that I (and other Asians) were not represented well would invariably ask me if I thought their theatre ought to produce “The Teahouse of the August Moon.” I cringed whenever I was asked that. For those too young to know this play, it is a white-centered story about the post-World War II American occupation of Okinawa. The Okinawan characters are now seen as offensive and stereotypical as written. There is also a long history of the Asian characters being played by white actors.

It was sad because that was the only play (other than “The King and I” and “Miss Saigon”) that white theatre professionals could think of that featured Asian characters. Dukesbay has featured Asian, most specifically Japanese, characters in more contemporary works by mostly baby boomer playwrights, such as Velina Hasu Houston and Philip Kan Gotanda, who showcase authentic voices from our community. Pre-COVID, we had plans to produce a play by one of the newer generation of Nikkei playwrights, “God Said This,” by Leah Nanako Winkler. This had to be shelved for the time being, but once we can safely re-open, this will be one the first things we perform.

Dukesbay also produces stories from the “mainstream” American theatrical canon. Last year we did both “Agnes of God,” featuring two Latina actresses in lead roles, and “Proof,” with the two daughters (one daughter was the lead character) played by actresses who identify as multiracial. I felt these were powerful examples to our audience that BIPOC people belong in the stories we tell, not just the stories that are specifically written about them. And we Japanese Americans want and need to see ourselves in important and entertaining stories that explore themes and ideas other than our World War II incarceration.

And speaking of endless stories about the incarceration (and they are important, don’t get me wrong), we can also be in comedies! We can be funny! We can be romantic leads and heroes in adventure tales. JAs need to see this as well. We have grown up in a rather serious culture given our community history. We don’t need to be boxed into that seriousness. We can spread our wings just like anyone else.

Calligraphy by Velina Hasu Houston

TN:  Given the racial reckoning happening all over the country in American theater, what’s your perspective as a JA producer, writer, and actress? Why does representation matter for younger and older Nikkei actors?

AHC: As a Nikkei actor, I love the opportunity to portray a Nikkei character who is not in an internment camp or is not necessarily a “war bride.” There’s nothing wrong with being either of those things, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the JA experience. I believe the baby boomer playwrights needed to explore those stories, because they were never represented in an authentic way before. But this newer generation of playwrights is moving beyond those themes and is representing their reality. Mixed-race Nikkei young adults and generational dynamics between Nisei, Sansei, and Yonsei generations are themes that you see in the new plays. And I have yet to play a Sansei on stage! That needs to change!

TN: What are some changes that you see happening nationally? How about locally? Different conversations, different representations?

AHC: Nationally and locally, representation of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc.), and persons with disabilities is a subject that is no longer being hidden or denied. The tragic killing of George Floyd has sparked conversations about racial equity that are both refreshing and uncomfortable. Non-BIPOC are showing more openness and curiosity about this subject than I have seen previously. But, as with so many national conversations, the loudest voices are heard the most. This is where JAs, along with other Asian Americans, cannot stay silent. We have stories to tell and our stories belong on the stage. Local conversations in Tacoma are happening now. Theatre artists who used to dismiss questions of representation and inclusion are now eagerly listening. Those in the theatre community who used to politely silence me are now asking sincere questions and are wanting to know how to help bring about change. This makes me hopeful.

TN:  What would you like to see happen next in the theater scene (and more broadly, media representation) around Nikkei representation?

AHC: I said earlier that I would like Nikkei writers and artists to go beyond just portraying the WWII incarceration. To be clear, I don’t want to eliminate that narrative altogether! This is a chapter in history that cannot be forgotten or repeated. We JAs are in a unique position to speak out against race-based injustice. Theatre is an effective way to do that.

But I would also love to see JA playwrights featured in our theatre companies’ seasons. I would love to see JAs portrayed on television and film in roles other than doctors, sushi chefs, and nerdy tech guys. I would love to see stories of JA families, but also see love stories with both JA couples and mixed race couples. This is real life. This is my life.

TN: How can people best support Nikkei artists (actors, artists, producers, writers, etc.) in the future? (This could,  of course, take the form of advocacy, financial support, and so on.)

AHC: One of the best ways I can think of to support Nikkei artists is, when a play is being produced that centers on JA characters, to go see that play! And bring your friends! There is nothing that speaks louder to a theatre company than good ticket sales. If diversity on stage “pays off” then it will happen more often. That sounds a bit crass, I know, but theatre is also a business. There is a bottom line, like any other business.

[To come full circle,] ironically, “The Teahouse of the August Moon” was the play where I made my theatrical debut back in the 1960’s. And guess what? I was the only actual Asian in the cast. All the other actors were white, and wore flesh-colored tape over their eyelids to make them look more Japanese. All the actors except me, of course. We like to think that times have changed enough where this doesn’t occur anymore. Sadly, I still see Asian characters being played by white actors, sans the taped eyelids.

We have so much further yet to go. Our work is not done by any means. The joy of seeing Nikkei (and other BIPOC) on stage makes me happy to be here. The occasional yellow-face casting is what keeps me doing the work in spite of having a life-threatening illness and the accompanying fatigue it brings.

Side note: During our conversation, we found out that both of us had been in the play, “Teahouse of the August Moon,” as children; she in the 1960s, me in the late 1970s—which says something about the limited state of roles for young Nikkei actresses then.

Dukes Bay Theater: https://dukesbay.org/

Tamiko Nimura is a Sansei/Pinay writer, originally from northern California, now living in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to being a frequent contributor to Discover Nikkei, her writing has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Kartika Review, The Rafu Shimpo, The Seattle Star (seattlestar.net), and the International Examiner (Seattle). She blogs at Kikugirl.net, and is working on a book that responds to her father’s unpublished manuscript about his Tule Lake incarceration during World War II.

Editor’s note. This article was originally published in Discover Nikkei (www.discovernikkei.org), which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.