Philip Kan Gotanda: Playwright and Provocateur
“We’re all beings in flux, in continual invention and reformation.” playwright Philip Kan Gotanda says in the preface to his new book. “The artist can...by the simple act of attention make an action in the direction of keenness, relevancy and liberation.”
In No More Cherry Blossoms, a collection of four plays set in different decades, Gotanda explores the choices and challenges Japanese American women face in periods of transition. The works display the playwright's flair for dramatizing thought-provoking situations.
“I was secretly an FOB [‘fresh off the boat’].” the character of Eiko—a Japanese American female—says in The Wind Cries Mary. “When I made fun of others I was really making fun of myself. You hated me? I hated me more.”
Set in 1968, The Wind Cries Mary was inspired by the work of Henrik Ibsen. Gotanda says he adapted Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler “to explore the social restraints imposed on an Asian American woman born into the world as an ‘oriental’ just as the world was moving toward the new idea of being a liberated Asian American woman.” The play offers a brutal look at contemporary issues. When asked about the psychological and physical violence in the play, Gotanda says, “Violence is inherent in the situations. After all, we are ultimately capable of anything. That’s what makes us human.”
Also evocative in The Wind Cries Mary, Gotanda’s “favorite play for now,” is his use of music. “I’d been wanting to do something about the ’60s using all my favorite music. And so I did. Lots of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Them.” Using iconic music to set the tone, Gotanda shades character and personality, and demonstrates conflict in a complex, rewarding work.
“You think because I don’t talk all the time, I’m looking down at you,’ the character of Hideo in Sisters Matsumoto, another of the book’s featured plays, remarks. “Maybe it’s got nothing to do with you. Maybe my silence is not silence at all but an angry shout I have to keep locked up inside. I was a good son. I did what my parents asked me to do.”
In Sisters Matsumoto, Gotanda explores the subject of “class” within the postwar Japanese American community. Lead characters Grace, Chiz and Rose, who were accustomed to wealth and community standing, discover their beloved father had been cheated out of his farm during the war and try to cope with their new circumstances.
“(Socioeconomic status) is something people sometimes overlook, focusing on race as the only factor,” Gotanda says. He also notes that cultural differences also lead audiences to react in widely varying ways to his works.
Gotanda recounts how “in Boston, a Jewish man, said that his family would never be so nonresponsive and unemotional as the characters were to the events of the day in Sisters Matsumoto.” As a writer of Japanese American stories Gotanda says he “struggles with the fact that many times an audience can perceive as bland, without commitment and boring a Japanese American response to a situation.”
“As far as I was concerned the sisters were bleeding all over the stage,” says Gotanda.
Gotanda dedicates another featured play, The Ballad of Yachiyo, set in 1919 rural Hawaii, to the memory of his aunt. Yachiyo Gotanda, who lived from 1902 to 1919, was a relative whom his father never spoke about. In the play, the character of Yachiyo comes of age and falls in love with a skillful but alcoholic potter who is married and dependent on his wife. Gotanda uses the arduous process of pottery making—preparing the clay, the failed pots, building the right kiln, the intense fire—as a dramatic metaphor.
As a creative talent who has worked in many art forms, including pottery, Gotanda strives to keep an open mind about the ways in which he finds inspiration.
“What I try to do is get up each day and give my body the chance to speak.” Gotanda writes in No More Cherry Blossoms.
Through his plays, films, spoken word, and performances, Gotanda speaks powerfully—and has earned a well-deserved place in the international world of theatre.