The Four Immigrants at Musical Cafe

The Four Immigrants Manga reading team! From L to R: Leslie Martinson (director), Lindsay Hirata (Ensemble), Carina Salazar (Ensemble), Will Dao (Frank), Sean Fenton (Fred), Benjamin Nguyen (Henry), Brian Palac (Charlie), Dana Shew (Ensemble), Lawrence-Michael Arias (Ensemble), Min Kahng (book, music, lyrics), Frederik L. Schodt (translator)

The Four Immigrants Manga reading team! From L to R: Leslie Martinson (director), Lindsay Hirata (Ensemble), Carina Salazar (Ensemble), Will Dao (Frank), Sean Fenton (Fred), Benjamin Nguyen (Henry), Brian Palac (Charlie), Dana Shew (Ensemble), Lawrence-Michael Arias (Ensemble), Min Kahng (book, music, lyrics), Frederik L. Schodt (translator)

At the end of January, I had the opportunity to present a 25-minute segment of The Four Immigrants Manga: An American Musical Extravaganza at the inaugural Musical Cafe Showcase presented by The Alchemy Works and Play Cafe. I had the joy of working with Leslie Martinson as the director of the project (Leslie is also my mentor via the Titan Award, and the Associate Artistic Director & Casting Director for TheatreWorks in Silicon Valley) and with eight amazing actors who infused energy and life into the project! Fred L. Schodt, translator of Henry Kiyama's The Four Immigrants Manga, was also in attendance. After the reading, he mentioned to me that I was staying true to the spirit of Kiyama's work - which pretty much made my evening! The evening consisted of four other musical writing teams presenting portions of their work as well - all in various stages in their creative process.

I learned so much through this rehearsal process and performance. After last year's presentation at the TheatreWorks Writers Retreat, I have moved cautiously forward with a vaudeville style to match the original text's "Sunday funnies" nature. I was unsure as to whether the dated feel of the work would translate to contemporary audiences. It was great to see the showcase audience respond to specific moments in the script/score that 1) worked for humorous effect, but more importantly 2) helped bridge the gap between an old-fashioned style and a modern audience.

Working with actors is always a treat because once I've explained the traits of each character, it's fun to then see actors at play, discovering internal and relational dynamics that I had not yet considered. I came away from the showcase not only feeling like the four titular characters stood strongly as four personalities whose journeys I'm interested in, but that the rest of the ensemble shown through with a presence of their own.

Of course, there are still so many questions to consider. One thing I need to consider moving forward is the idea of Japanese-ness, American-ness, and Japanese-American-ness. Because Kiyama wrote the comic book in a very imitative, American comic-book style, I have gone in the direction of a very American-feeling vaudeville. And yet, thanks to some valuable feedback, I realize that there is a danger then of not having the characters feel "Japanese" enough. This is further made difficult because of the fact that at this time, Japan itself was split on its approach toward the West, and, in particular, America. There were many who passionately claimed that following the ways of Western democracy, individualism, and economics was the way forward for Japan. And others just as passionately fought for a return to traditional Japanese ways. It seems that Kiyama was, at least in part, of the former mentality. He came to America to study the Western styles of art (though it should be noted that he was adept at Japanese artistic styles and techniques as well), and he made the decision to capture the history of the Four Immigrants in a form that was distinctly Western - the frame-by-frame comic strip. What does that mean for my interpretation (as a non-Japanese-but-still-Asian-American) of his work? The good news is, I am still early enough in the process to really grapple with this question and even explore these issues in the script/score itself. As of right now, I don't know if the final show will have anything definitive to say about the topic, but I do see many opportunities to weave it into the work and perhaps show a variety of perspectives. All this to say, these are the types of incredibly rich questions/dialogues that have arisen from the showcase, and I'm excited for this next phase of research and writing!

Next step: complete an entire first draft.