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Dr. Phil: Philip Kan Gotanda has documented the Asian American experience for more than 20 years.

There's Something About Philip

Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda opens up about his new play 'The Wind Cries Mary'

By Todd Inoue

PLAYWRIGHT and filmmaker Philip Kan Gotanda is one of the most recognized names in Asian American theater. His plays Yankee Dawg You Die, The Wash, The Ballad of Yachiyo and Sisters Matsumoto are considered high marks, representative of his light yet incisive touch.

Next week, the world premiere of his latest play, The Wind Cries Mary, opens at the San José Repertory Theatre for a month-long run. The story, loosely based of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and set during the late 1960s, concerns a Japanese-American woman, Eiko, and her cultural awakening as she is surrounded by student protests, drugs and the twin tugs of tradition and instinct. Music of the time--Cream, Blue Cheer, Them, It's a Beautiful Day, Gerry and the Pacemakers--serves as bumpers and mood enhancers.

At a cafe near the Rep, Gotanda opened up about Mary and staying relevant.

TI: Why do a play based on "Hedda Gabler?"

PG: The Rep approached me to do a play for them. I was going to do it on venture capitalists. I was introduced to and interviewed several billionaires. I couldn't find a story I wanted to do, so I abandoned that one. Then [Rep artistic director] Timothy Near suggested Hedda Gabler. I went back and read it. I'd always wanted to do a play on the late '60s and this idea that there was a focal point or character caught in the middle of the changing intellectual world, where the ideas are actually influencing people's lives--and to be caught in a shift of consciousness and halfway between those worlds. As I read Hedda Gabler, I thought it would fit well with the concept I'd like to try to do. It merged quite easily.

What issues did you want the character of Eiko to explore?

I wanted to explore a combination of issues but also show that she's an Asian American vs. a white feminist. I wanted to address gender politics and race, and then explore the idea of an Asian American identity and the idea of the relationship between man and woman. How far does it go and, ultimately, how does it fit in with intellectual ideas, social activities--and how do drugs become a part of that?

Music is a big part in the play. Why was it so important?

A large part of the culture was the music. I couldn't write a play about the era without having music play a big part of it. It was part of the culture that I lived. It was tied into the politics, the drugs, the emergence of racial and identity politics, the war--it fused together.

The play is set in 1968. Where were you in your life at that time and what kind of research did you do?

I was going to high school in Stockton. The play is drawn from personal experience and hearing my brother talk. My brother was at San Francisco State, and he was very much involved in the political movement. He was three years older than me. He was working in San Francisco. He was out at the Chicago Democratic convention. He had gone to Cuba. He was very involved in things happening in San Francisco's Japantown. He would bring home the music--the San Francisco and English groups. The following years, I went away to school and got involved with the Asian American movement.

What do you want people to get from the play

It'd be nice if people had a better understanding of the origins of Asian American consciousness and the difficulties of adjusting to a new concept. Things we assume always existed didn't exist at one point. How did these new ideas come into being? If people come away with a better sense of that, that would be a good thing.

Your work has always addressed Asian American issues. Was there ever a time you wanted to get away from it?

No. It's almost now to the point where "Asian American" is just a label. Labels are up for grabs for what they mean. I'm evolving for what I'm writing and how I'm writing. It's not an extinct thing; it's in flux. I've never had a problem by it; I've never felt hindered by it. Maybe if I lived in Hollywood, it would be a problem--"You only write one thing"--[but] that's not the case. I work in theater, in independent film, where it's never been a problem. And I don't feel limited by it. I can write about anything. It doesn't have to be yellow faces.

What about the younger generation who might think, as a theatrical device, that internment camps are a dead issue?

If they think the camps are a dead issue, I'd still like them to know what it was. To me, it's to be self-aware and know your history. If you know it, then you want to move on, or claim it's dead and build on top of it. That's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to come along and say, "I think what my parents did is old. I want to kill my father, slay him mythically and move on and build my own life and go on." I don't begrudge the younger artists and writers who come along and say, "Philip Gotanda and David Henry Hwang, they're old-school." To me, that's what's supposed to happen. Everyone is supposed to go off on their own and build on it. All I can do is put out work that's real to me. Real to me means that I have to be listening all the time. You have to pay attention to the lens of your own time line and own history. I don't want to make any pretense about it other than that. The next generation will come along [and] will write in their own way. I don't look back. Each play reflects a different time period in my life.

What time period does "The Wind Cries Mary" reflect for you?

It's a reflection back, so it fits well with the idea that, in my own life, I've begun Act 2. I've always felt, in a two-act play, it's better to have a stronger Act 2 than Act 1. You can futz around all you want for Act 1 but you have to finish strong. I'm working on Act 2.

The Wind Cries Mary opens Saturday (Oct. 19) at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are available by calling 408.367.7255.

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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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