Writing a play may or may not be a crime, but to create a produced play one needs the same ingredients. You must write a play that can be performed within the means of a theater. You must be motivated to write the play. And there must be an opportunity for it to be shown before an audience.
In 1994, when I was working at Sierra Repertory Theatre there was an engaging young Chinese American actress named Tricia Dong. The management at Sierra Rep had an interest in producing a play on the Japanese Internment and suggested that I write one for Tricia. I had an interest in the Internment but, in the political climate of the time had misgivings about a Chinese actor playing a Japanese American. So I didn’t feel motivated to take them up on that offer. Rather I proposed that I write Tricia a play that would focus on the crucial role of Chinese labor in the building of the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s. They agreed and the resulting play Gunpowder Man proved very popular. It will be the subject of a future blog.
While Sierra Rep didn’t get an Internment play out of me, they had sown a seed and over the next few years I thought idly about what I would write about that unfortunate chapter in our history if the opportunity arose.
Then in 2001 Julie Mushet, who was then the executive director of the Central Sierra Arts Council, was planning a big show featuring the Yosemite paintings of the Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata. Julie asked me to write a play to accompany the exhibit. I loved Obata’s work but could not find the inherent dramatic situation to motivate me to undertake the project. Fortunately though, my research into Obata revealed that he had done a magnificent series of paintings and drawing of his experience during the Internment. Moreover, it was being arranged that while the Yosemite show was hanging in Sonora the Internment art would be on display at the Merced Arts Council down in the valley. Here was the provocation to write the Internment play that Sierra Rep might have gotten if instead of Tricia they had wanted a work for a Japanese-American actor. So I once again asked to alter the terms of a proposed commission. Julie liked the idea and Dust Storm would be the result.
As it happened, I had just begun to think about the as yet untitled play in September of 2001 when, as everyone knows, the US was subject to the first major attack on its shores since Pearl Harbor. I was deeply concerned about whether we would again surrender to the endemic xenophobia that comes to life in times of hardship and threat. My motive to commit to the play expanded exponentially and generated the subtitle Art and Survival in a Time of Paranoia. In the end I wound up casting Zachary Drake a biracial actor whose mother Maria Cheng was then a Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota and who now heads Theatre Esprit Asia in Denver. Zachary has toured the play widely, including performances in 2009 at Washington University in conjunction with a major exhibit of Obata’s work. Gyo Obata, the son of Chiura and world famous architect, saw the performance and had no problem with the casting.