Writing our names in Japanese on a pink origami heart, originally uploaded by blmurch.
Jude Narita didn't fit the stereotype of Asian actors. So, in a tradition both old and new in theatre, the Japanese-American actress decided to write her own roles.
Her subject: stereotypes.
"I was always the tallest Vietnamese villager in the room," says Narita, who is 5'7", of auditions that rarely landed her stage, television or film work. "I didn't fit the mold of the small, exotic flower."
Narita's solo show, Coming into Passion/Song for a Sansei, is an hour-long series of vignettes about several Asian women--none of them small, exotic flowers. The lineup includes a Filipino mail-order bride, a Vietnamese prostitute in Saigon during the war, a Cambodian woman adjusting to life in America, and a teenage, third-generation Japanese-American, or sansei. At first, each character seems a familiar stereotype--the impudent prostitute, for example--but then Narita humanizes them.
What is this inner fire?
Coming into Passion/Song for a Sansei ran for two years in Los Angeles, where Narita won several acting awards, including the Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Award. Now she tours colleges and produces short runs at theatres from New York to Portland, Ore. Occasionally an audience member will tell her she's the first Asian actress they've seen on stage. But Narita's gallery of characters speaks to a wide audience. "The first person to come up and say, 'You wrote about me' was a young Jewish woman," she declares.
"When I was growing up, either there were no Asians on television, or they were portrayed as the enemy, or the goofy person, and certain mannerisms were exaggerated," Narita remembers. "Theatre has not meant much to Asians in America because the basis of the culture is European."
Narita grew up in Long Beach, Calif., one of seven children that her mother--who was relocated to a detention camp in Gila, Ariz. during World War II--raised alone. She got some experience in community theatre when she was young (not surprisingly, in the musical Flower Drum Song), then studied with Stella Adler in New York and Lee Strasberg in Los Angeles.
After her studies, she began teaching acting in Los Angeles. And she auditioned. She was in the Los Angeles production of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel with Jon Voight, and a few other plays and television shows. But more often than not, she was not cast.
"It was a shock that I wasn't getting hired," Narita says. "There is definitely a time you question whether you're good enough. But then you ask, what is this inner fire? I had other things to do than sit and bemoan the fact that there are no parts. I wanted to act. Artists of the '90s have to take some responsibility for the art being produced."
When her mother, by then a producer of jazz concerts in New York, hired Narita to perform at a concert in 1986, the actress wrote three of the characters that appear in Coming into Passion. She kept writing, borrowed $5,000 from her mother, and rented the tiny Fountain Theatre in Hollywood where word-of-mouth and eventual glowing reviews brought her audiences of all races.
Coming into Passion is narrated by an articulate, educated Japanese-American character whose dreams, in the scheme of the show, are invaded by Narita's coterie of alter-egos. "We have nothing in common," the narrator maintains when she encounters the prostitute, the mail-order bride, the Cambodian refugee, the sansei teenager. "What do they have to do with me?"
But the woman (ironically, the least interesting of Narita's creations, perhaps because there is less of a stereotype to bust) finds that she actually has a great deal in common with her dream-world visitors: She, too, is caught between American culture and her Asian heritage.
The model minority myth
Although the women have all been manipulated--by men, by war, by the forces of assimilation--Narita makes her point with poignant humor rather than finger-pointing. "I'm not into theatre that blames," Narita says. "And I don't want these characters to be interpreted as victims. They have a great sense of humor. They're going to survive."
Her portrayal of various Asian races is accepted, she says, because it is done with respect. "There has been such an absence of these voices on stage, and I respect the cultures being depicted. A Cambodian woman told me that when I said 'Cambodian' on stage, she thought 'At last!'"
Narita continues to tour Coming into Passion (including a stop on April 10 at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.), to conduct workshops in Los Angeles for actors who want to write and perform their own pieces, and to work on two new shows. Both continue her exploration of stereotypes, including what she calls "the model minority myth"--that Asians can do it all.
"I'm spoiled," Narita says of the freedom her show has given her. "I get to say what I see. It would be hard for me to be small again."
Rebecca Morris is a free-lance critic and writer based in New York.
Morris, Rebecca. "Jude Narita: no exotic flower." American Theatre Apr. 1993: 28. General OneFile. Web. 14 Feb. 2011.
Gale Document Number:A14081106