Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, November 16, 2001

Dennis Ihara, Nan Asuncion and Sue Shiroma Nada
star in "The Wash" at Manoa Valley Theatre.

MVT broadens by
bringing out ‘The Wash’

Philip Kan Gotanda's post-war drama
captures universality of 'ethnic' tale

By John Berger

Ask any one with a few years perspective on local community theater and they'll have no trouble telling you what type of theater each group usually presents. This one does old musicals, that one does off-Broadway hits, that other one does "ethnic theater," and so on.

True as that is, there are exceptions. Manoa Valley Theatre's new production of Philip Kan Gotanda's "The Wash" is one of them. Yes, Gotanda is a Japanese-American playwright whose best known plays are about the post-war experiences of Japanese-Americans, but his stories address broader issues.

Dwight T. Martin, producing director at MVT, sees that as a "double-plus for us here in Hawaii."

"We can relate to the ethnicity but also we can relate to the underlying universality," he said, speaking from experience. It was a year ago that MVT presented the Hawaii premiere of Gotanda's "Sisters Matsumoto," a story of a Japanese-American family in California set at the end of World War II. The sisters try to rebuild their lives after spending three years in a concentration camp. The family's experiences were shared by millions of people of all backgrounds during and after the war, and by millions since then who have been displaced by wars and social upheaval.

Both Gotanda plays are a step away from the modern Broadway and off-Broadway shows that MVT has become known for, but Martin says there's a larger picture here.

"We're looking a little more broadly at what we think might be of interest to our audience and what we think we can do a good job of producing."

"We were very pleased with our success with 'Matsumoto.' It was a critical success. It was a popular success. It wasn't typical of what we normally produce but we try to be very diverse up here and that diversity now reaches out a little farther."

And now comes "The Wash." Written in 1987, and first presented here by Kumu Kahua in 1993, "The Wash" is a dark portrait of Nobu Matsumoto, a Japanese-American man trapped by his culture, history and his own personality. Nobu is so honest that he returns to a restaurant when the cashier gives him an extra quarter in change, but he is unable to share his feelings with his wife or forgive his daughter for marrying an African-American.

Nobu's wife, Masi, has left him after 42 years of marriage and is slowly moving toward divorce. Nobu, ever the stolid nisei male, keeps his emotions to himself and spends his days watching television in the home they shared.

Gotanda's skill is apparent as he adds detail upon detail to this modern tragedy. We learn that Nobu worked for Masi's father before the war, before the family lost its wealth during internment. Nobu's rival for Masi's hand enlisted in the 442nd RCT and died in Italy in 1944.

Years later, Nobu lost sexual interest in his wife -- but the magazines she found convinced her that he hadn't lost interest in women. Gotanda leaves it to the audience to speculate on the importance of each bit on information and how they all fit together.

We see Masi as a victim of verbal abuse -- at least as it is defined in America these days. And, when she decides she's had enough, Nobu can't believe she's leaving him. It's an All-American story that easily transcends ethnicity.

"A lot of people commented that even though for all appearances it's ethnically focused it is really much more universal. We just try and do some good stuff and keep our season relatively diverse," Martin said.

"The Wash" brings with it the opportunity for MVT subscribers to enjoy the work of Kumu Kahua veterans Dann Seki and Nan Asuncion (Seki starred in Kumu Kahua's production of a third Gotanda play, "Yankee Dawg You Die," in 1997). That follows a precedent set last year as three other Kumu Kahua veterans, actors Keith Kashiwada and J. Martin Romualdez, and director Phyllis S.K. Look, helped to stage "Sisters Matsumoto" at MVT.

Look's work received a Po'okela Award this year, and her win reflects another element in play here. Kumu Kahua is a member of the Hawaii State Theatre Council but its board of directors decided years ago that they didn't want Kumu Kahua shows considered for the local theater awards. Whatever the rationale for the decision, it has denied many talented actors and playwrights the opportunity to be recognized for their contributions to local theater, while MVT shows are adjudicated. 'Nuff said.

"A very important part of our mission is not only entertaining local audiences but creating opportunities for local artists and part of this is giving people a chance of choosing shows that provide opportunities," said Martin, whose aim is to produce good theater. "Here are more opportunities for our audience. Here are more opportunities for the community's artists. Obviously there's the talent here to do the work and I'm delighted we're doing the show."

The Wash

Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Road
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 2
Tickets: $25
Call: 988-6131

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