Role Model On A Role -- Philip Kan Gotanda's Work Grabs Mainstream Attention And Inspires Younger Artists

Sipping espresso at an outdoor cafe in Pioneer Square this week, Philip Kan Gotanda does not look well cast for the role of grand old man of Asian-American theater.

A short, rounded fellow in his mid-40s, the San Francisco playwright and filmmaker sports a wispy mustache, a fuzzy goatee and an affable smile. He fringes his dark hair blond with peroxide, and his clothes are playfully bohemian-chic - especially that black shirt he's wearing, with the large white handprints stamped all over it.

Gotanda is in Seattle this week for a blitz of public appearances that reflect his busy creative existence. On Tuesday, the Seattle Asian American Film Festival screened his two captivating film shorts, "The Kiss" and "Drinking Tea."

Tonight and tomorrow, Gotanda attends the opening performances of a Northwest Asian American Theater revival of his play, "The Dream of Kitamura." And he's guest of honor at a Seattle Repertory Theatre reception for next spring's Rep production of "The Ballad of Yachiyo," which brought Gotanda a 1996 PEN/West award.

Given his refreshing lack of self-importance and art-student aura, one would not instantly peg Gotanda as a role model and inspiration to a throng of younger Asian-American theater artists. But that he is.

With his friend David Henry Hwang, Gotanda became one of the first Asian-American dramatists to crash barriers of ethnic stereotype and exclusion and break into bigtime New York and regional theater ( with plays such as "Yankee Dawg You Die," and "Song for a Nisei Fisherman" and films like "The Wash," made for public TV's "American Playhouse" series).

Quietly producing

As Hwang struggled to match the mega-success of his Tony Award-winning Broadway smash, "M. Butterfly," and Frank Chin (an earlier theatrical trailblazer) turned his talents to prose, Gotanda kept on quietly, productively exploring new dramatic angles of the Asian-American experience - often with a sensitivity and wry humor that a racially mixed crowd can appreciate.

"I'm coming from a specific place as a Japanese American," he reflects, "but I want to make sure audiences can meet me halfway. When you want to reach a lot of people, your work should be inclusive enough for everyone to find its center."

Though accessible to many, Gotanda's scripts have a special status in the Asian-American community. Judith Nihei, artistic director of Northwest Asian American Theater, has tracked Gotanda's literary progress over the past 15 years. "It feels odd for those of us in this generation to be a role model to others," she says, "but the younger artists do look up to Philip, and for two good reasons.

"First, he did it - he broke into the American theater when it was really difficult for someone like him. Second, he pushes himself into trying new things. Philip started out experimental in his writing, got very traditional, and now he's off in a lot of different directions."

Adds Seattle film festival program director William Satake Blauvelt, "I really admire that Philip is always up front about being an Asian-American artist. Everybody else tap dances around that - they worry about being pigeonholed. But Philip isn't afraid of the title, and won't let it limit him."

Initial success

Gotanda and such peers as Chin Hwang and Velina Hasu Houston did, however, find initial success in plays that challenged prevalent ethnic images of Asian America, and aired hidden corners of its history. One such work was Gotanda's "Yankee Dawg You Die," a 1989 Off-Broadway hit about the travails of two Asian-American actors in Hollywood.

Yet even when tackling such potentially didactic topics, Gotanda has always followed his psychological impulses and aesthetic curiosity. His scripts have ranged in style from the quiet domestic naturalism of "The Wash" and "Drinking Tea," both studies of older Japanese-American couples, to the ragged, less persuasive surrealism of "Fish Head Soup" (seen here in 1994 at A Contemporary Theatre), to the pop-cartoon, punk-rock fantasia of "The Dream of Kitamura."

Blauvelt can praise Gotanda for "finding the poetry in normal people's lives, and in things we often take for granted," while Nihei extols the "wild and crazy murder-mystery extravaganza and great rock music" in "Dream of Kitamura."

"I think I just listen to my body when I write," Gotanda muses. "I don't necessarily pick political issues, though they do surface in my work. What comes out of me are just things I need to say, whether they're explicitly political or not."

Teen rocker

Gotanda's life has been as varied as his scripts. Raised in a Japanese-American community in Stockton, Calif., where his doctor father emigrated from Hawaii, Gotanda played in rock bands as a teen, dabbled in campus politics at Santa Cruz in the late 1960s, then pleased his parents by obtaining a law degree from Hastings Law College.

But instead of signing on with a law firm, he went off to study traditional ceramics in Japan. Then, back in San Francisco, he jumped into theater head first in 1979 with "The Avocado Kid," a boisterous musical about a sansei rocker produced by the Asian American Theatre.

Like "Avocado Kid" and all his later creations, the "Dream of Kitamura" was based in part on Gotanda's own experiences and on stories collected from friends and relations. "The idea for it came to me as a dream," he explains. "I dreamt my brother and I were these samurai guards protecting my father from a fierce monster. That's the whole basis of the play, though I added a lot of other crazy stuff."

The 1995 work "Ballad of Yachiyo," an ethereal, tragic fable about a young Hawaiian woman who falls in love with an older potter, grew out of a family story Gotanda heard. "I really did have a relative in Kauai named Yachiyo who fell in love with a married man, got pregnant, and drowned herself. All the pottery elements came from my studies in Japan, though. When you're a writer, no experience is wasted!"

After a Guggenheim grant, several National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and productions of his plays at such prominent theaters as the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, New York's Manhattan Theatre Club and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where "Ballad of Yachiyo" premiered last year), Gotanda branched into filmmaking.

Can-do attitude

He had already written the film script for the well-received 1988 movie version of his play, "The Wash," and a treatment for an aborted miniseries about Japanese Americans seeking government reparations for their internment in World War II. But when Gotanda pitched directing as well as writing a movie to Hollywood backers, he found no takers. "So I just decided, what the heck?" he recalls. "I'll ask everybody I know if they'll help me pay for this. I'll get all my actor friends together and I'll do the whole thing myself."

That can-do attitude resulted in "The Kiss," a 15-minute, black and white short featuring Gotanda (and his actress wife, Diane Takei). The bittersweet, Chaplinesque tale of a lonely clerk was followed up this year by an elegiac half-hour film, "Drinking Tea." It will be shown soon at both the Seattle Asian American and Sundance film festivals.

By next year, Gotanda hopes to graduate to making a full-length, self-produced feature, "Otto" - which he describes as "Forrest Gump" meets "Pulp Fiction." The cast will include Tamlyn Tamita ("The Joy Luck Club") and George Takei ("Star Trek").

Still connected to the small network of Asian-American drama companies around the country, and still in demand at the larger theaters, Gotanda also intends to keep writing plays. And he enjoys spotting and mentoring new dramatic talent wherever he finds it.

"There's this guy in San Francisco named Justin Chin, who does these very far-out monologues," he says. "His stuff is really different from a lot of earlier Asian-American plays, but why should he rehash what's been done already? I understand, because I want to keep moving on, too."


Performance times

"The Dream of Kitamura" by Philip Kan Gotanda opens tonight at 8 at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S. and runs Thursdays-Sundays through Nov. 10. Tommorrow night Gotanda leads a post-play discussion at the theater. Details: 340-1049. Gotanda's film "Drinking Tea" will be screened Nov. 4 at 4 p.m. in the Seattle Asian American Film Festival at Seattle Art Museum. Details: 525-0892.