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Philip Kan Gotanda Revealed

Philip Kan Gotanda journeys to the late 60’s for The Wind Cries Mary
by Lia Chang

Engaging audiences for more than two decades, Philip Kan Gotanda has created an impressive body of work as a playwright and filmmaker with his distinctively Asian American vision and voice.

Philip Kan Gotanda
Photo Credit: Lia Chang

Gotanda’s latest, is The Wind Cries Mary, a play he has loosely based on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. In November 2002, the cast set the San Jose Repertory’s stage ablaze with fireworks. The action in Gotanda’s provocative drama takes place in San Francisco, circa 1968.

While the 60’s was an era of rock ‘n’ roll, Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement it was also a defining era when Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Korean American students on campuses throughout California were finding their political voice.

Asian American students were seeking equal entitlement and representation alongside the protests against American involvement in Vietnam. They discovered themselves amidst America’s changing consciousness of identity and were grappling with the notion of being “Oriental” vs “Asian American.”

Tackling Ibsen’s timeless themes of power, racial identity and gender politics in The Wind Cries Mary, Hedda Gabler becomes Gotanda’s Eiko Hanabi, a Japanese American woman of volatile proportions. Searching for her Asian American identity, Eiko is a person out of time trapped between a world of tradition and a new state of being, desperately struggling to break free.  The Wind Cries Mary featured Gotanda regulars Stan Egi and Sab Shimono with Tess Lina, Allison Sie, Thomas Vincent Kelly, and Joy Carlin under the direction of Eric Simonson.

Gotanda reveals his creative process in shaping The Wind Cries Mary in an interview with AsianConnections’ Lia Chang during a rehearsal break.

Lia: What motivated you to tackle this particular subject now?

Philip: Timothy Near, the artistic director of San Jose Rep suggested it. I made it very clear that I can’t tell what I’m going to write.  I can point in a certain direction but I can never tell what’s going to happen.  The initial topic that we thought was doable was CEO’s in Silicon Valley. I interviewed some extremely wealthy men in their early 40’s. I didn’t find their lives all that remarkable.  So I bailed on that.  Timothy suggested I consider Hedda Gabler.  My initial reaction was, “Not another adaptation of Hedda Gabler.”  That was playing on Broadway at the time.  I went back and reread the play and was quite moved. I found it extremely compelling. I read it again and again.  I realized this female protagonist is one of the most interesting ones I’ve even encountered. I thought in terms of the late 60’s, a time era I’d always been interested in and wanted to do a play about.  In particular about someone who was caught on the cusp of the changing consciousness of America, having to do with identity politics.  My Eiko is someone who had invested in being an “Oriental American.” And she’s been good at it.  Then she finds herself amidst this turmoil in which there is a new consciousness that’s emerging.  In which she looks at and knows that there are truths there, but also that’s she’s not sure whether she’s capable of facing them, wanting to or even can as she is so much vested in this old way of thinking. That topic fit really well into the plot structure of Hedda Gabler. 

Stan Egi as “Miles Katayama” and Tess Lina as “Eiko Hanabi” in the World Premiere production of Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wind Cries Mary at San Jose Repertory Theatre
Photo Credit: Tom Chargin

Lia: How far do you think Asian Americans have come since the 60’s?

Philip: The very fact that “Asian Americans” is such a mainstream term now. Prior to the mid sixties it was non-existent.  It gives us some indication to the journey we’ve traveled. At the same time it seems to be of so much of what Eiko goes through. Her struggle would still be applicable in 2002.

Lia: What are some of the major achievements that women’s rights groups and civil rights groups accomplished during this time?

Philip: There were new ways of looking at issues. Along with the ideas, people were putting their bodies on the line. It wasn’t just intellectual thoughts.  Ideas and thoughts were coupled with action. And sacrificing. That is what changed everything. Eiko struggles with the idea that she’s not sure if she makes this jump into the void of liberation, if there is even an intellectual model for her to grasp onto. For a woman, you take this leap, you change your life and the new model hasn’t emerged yet.  At the time, Ms. Magazine had yet to come out.  A lot of the terminology had yet to take shape, or rather this idea of how involved they were in the “movement.” In my play Eiko feels that even though this movement is supposed to be progressive, sometimes those in the “movement” are still serving coffee. She is cynical about what’s going on.

Lia: What social conditions and principles are at work in 1968? What is their impact on Eiko?

Philip: Eiko understands that Asian Americans are beginning to look at a bigger picture rather than their small little community. America, activities of a nation, why they fight war and why they go to war- there’s a whole bigger world out there related to the politics of who and what they are in the politics of America. Their vision of the world is expanding. It’s beginning to intrude on their small quiet life.

Lia: Your title The Wind Cries Mary is a Jimmy Hendrix song. How important is music to this play?

Philip: Jimmy Hendrix is a specific choice. He was a very interesting artist.  He was the first “black artist to play rock and roll” and to be recognized as an icon.  That fit with the play in terms of being caught on the cusp of cultures of being pushed and pulled. Hendrix had to go to England to become popular and then come back.  I’ve always been interested in his music; it makes sense that I would use his music in this play.  That deals with being caught on the cusp of our change in national consciousness into racial identity politics.  The Wind Cries Mary was not the original title.  There was no title for the play.  As I wrote the play, the name Mary came up, and became part of the play.  And then I thought at some point The Wind Cries Mary would be a nice title for the play.  It has a melancholic feel to it. The song does too.  That’s how it became the title and that’s why I use his music.

Gotanda’s plays include family dramas The Wash and Sisters Matsumoto, the surrealistic Fish Head Soup and punk rock pop-fantastic Dream of Kitamura, the biting social commentary Yankee Dawg You Die, floating weeds, Yohen, and the ethereal, romantic The Ballad of Yachiyo which all resonate with the stylish stamp of his uniquely Asian American vision. Several years ago the San Francisco-based playwright segued into making independent films-his short films-Drinking Tea and The Kiss.  His debut feature Life Tastes Good screened at the Sundance Film Festival and most recently at the Dublin Film Festival.

A Guggenheim fellow, he is a recipient of three awards from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and a TCG-PEW National Theater Arts Award. While his plays have been presented at every major Asian American Theater in the nation, as well as the Mark Taper Forum, Manhattan Theater Club, and New York Shakespeare Festival, last year he made his mark internationally with The Ballad of Yachiyo at London’s Gate Theatre in co-production with the Royal National Theatre.  Next season, the Maple Leaf Theatre in Tokyo will feature a new Japanese language translation of Nisei Fisherman.

Lia: In addition to The Wind Cries Mary, which just completed it’s run in November 2002; your plays are now being produced on international stages. How exciting to have your work produced at the Gate Theater in London. Had you been there before?

Philip: First time I actually went with a production. London is the Theatre town. I enjoyed it because of the nice theater aesthetic. It’s like New York- people are conversing about theatre.  I met the artistic director at the Royal Court.  I was introduced to a lot of new writers, which I really enjoyed. 

Related Links
Life Tastes Good for Philip Kan Gotanda

Lia: How did the Maple Leaf Theatre in Japan become interested in your work?

Philip: My plays are getting translated into Japanese; this is a translation of one of my early works Nisei Fisherman. I tried for the longest time to get my work over there and to be honest; they haven’t been interested in my work specifically because of the Japanese American themes.  A country like Japan is not as interested in Japanese Americans as they are in white or black Americans.  That’s been changing in the last couple of years. Young folk are going out into the world and the world is intruding on Japan. The Japanese in Japan are more aware of the American and Asian American constituency. The consequence is that things are changing and some of the theatres are interested in my work.  It is a beginning.

Lia: You lived in Japan for a time. What was that like? At what point in your career did you live there?

Philip: I did it in my early twenties. A great experience. It's interesting to go to where your grandparents came from. And if you really want to know what it's like to be an American, live abroad. It allows you to look at yourself, your world, and your country from a very different perspective. You gain a great insight as to what it means to be an American who has this particular face.

Lia: Would you consider living in Japan?

Philip: Part of the time, if I could afford to live in Tokyo, I would. I think it's because I'm comfortable there, I speak enough of the language, it's a place where I feel as a man that I am sexually objectified, in a good sense. I never feel that anywhere else, except maybe in Hawaii occasionally. It's the oddest thing when I am in Tokyo or Japan in general, I feel real, and I feel noticed. I am actually looked at, and again, sexually objectified" which means that I actually exist as a male - yes, I have a penis. If you are a man and you haven't experienced that and then you experience it, it is a very different experience. Everybody knows what that look is. And you know when you are getting it and you know when you are not getting it.

Lia: What’s next?

Philip: I’m writing another play – I took on a commission to write a play with the American Conservatory Theater (ACT), a local theater in San Francisco, and am working on an adaptation of Rashomon for them.

AsianConnections Arts & Entertainment Editor Lia Chang (left) currently appears as Nurse Chang on As The World Turns and One Life to Live. She is an accomplished stage, screen and TV actress, photographer and writer based in New York City. AsianConnections wishes to thank Lia and Philip Kan Gotanda for their generous time and efforts in making this interview possible.

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