YOHEN Theater Review
One of the great things about L.A.’s thriving theater scene is that primarily because of our proximity to the movie/TV industry, theatergoers often have the treat of seeing top talents such as Joe Morton, who starred in John Sayles’ memorable 1984 The Brother From Another Planet and currently portrays Kerry Washington’s father Rowan Pope on the ABC-TV series Scandal. Morton is currently delivering a stellar, must-see portrayal of comic/Civil Rights and peace activist Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose, which has very deservedly been extended again at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through Nov. 19 (see: TheWallis.org/TML).
Glover is completely convincing and natural as the ex-GI James Washington, a boxing aficionado who once had dreams of Olympic gold and now coaches at a small gym somewhere in, I believe, L.A.
Another case in point of screen notables treading on L.A. boards is Danny Glover, perhaps best known for the Lethal Weapon film franchise. So let’s get this out of the way first: In Yohen, Glover is completely convincing and natural as the ex-GI James Washington, a boxing aficionado who once had dreams of Olympic gold and now coaches at a small gym somewhere in, I believe, L.A. Glover is no stranger to this role, as he originally played the part at its 1999 world premier, which - like the current production - was staged at the East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater in Downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo.
Glover’s co-star in this two-hander, June Angela as Sumi, is likewise no slouch in the thesp department. While many of Angela’s top credits are on the stage, she holds her own vis-à-vis the movie star who plays her estranged husband. A Tony Award nominee for Shogun: The Musical Angela also appeared on Broadway opposite Yul Brynner in a revival of The King and I, and appeared on the TV sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and won an Emmy for The Electric Company.
Having said that, the problems with Yohen are, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “not in the stars but in” Philip Kan Gotanda’s script. At one point roughly midway through this one-acter Sumi takes her husband to task for being “Boring! Boring! Boring!” It requires a first rate dramatist to render the boring interesting and attention-grabbing but much of Yohen reflects Sumi’s lament and is, similar to her take on James, dull and slow. At times, some ticket buyers may imagine that translated into English Yohen means “yawn” and yearn for Glover’s Lethal Weapon co-star Mel Gibson to leap onstage, guns a-blazing, to make things more exciting.
Although as noted Glover makes the most out of the raw material Gotanda has given him, I have to agree with Sumi about his likable but one-dimensional character fixated on amateur boxing, who refuses to grow as a person by expanding his horizons and, Sumi believes, drinks too much beer. Some may argue that with his mono-obsession on pugilism James is even a bit of a stage stereotype (a subject explored last summer by Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s production of Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind) and a throwback as a character. After 37 years of marriage, Sumi is ready for some personal growth and pursues new educational and career opportunities. James, too, has reached a point in his life where he, too, can do so, but chooses (or is congenitally unable) to do so.
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Apparently, James and Sumi met in postwar Japan when the former was part of the occupation forces. As such James had the “hail the conquering hero” stature. They marry and move to the USA, where Sumi learns bitter lessons about racism, American-style, in a land that places Black males lower on the social status totem pole. Like her ceramics, Sumi is on a slow burn that eventually erupts into a wildfire, and the conflict makes Yohen more dramatic. (According to press notes the play’s title refers to “unpredictable changes that take place in the kiln” that can lead to imperfections, which is an obvious metaphor for this flawed coupling.)
The 90 minute drama does build in intensity and taken as a whole, after a slow start, I was glad to have seen it - and not only for the rare opportunity to eyeball the great Glover work his magic in person. To his credit, Gotanda tackles topics rarely pursued (at least to my knowledge) by playwrights in Western productions. From Giacomo Puccini’s 1903 Madame Butterfly to 1993’s M. Butterfly (screenplay by David Henry Hwang), et al, productions have centered on the interracial romances of Caucasian males and the “exotic” other in the form of “Oriental” females (or what are assumed to be women).
In Yohen, Gotanda takes a candid look at East meets West meets Africa. Spike Lee’s 1991 Jungle Fever dealt with the relationship between an African American man and a white Italian-American woman, but here Gotanda explores the (relatively speaking) terra incognito of an African American male and a Japanese-born and raised woman. Sumi is, of course, uprooted from her homeland due to her marriage to James and is wistful for her heritage, especially with her being descended from what she thinks is an exalted samurai lineage.
Christopher Scott Murillo creates a realistic set that somehow expresses the characters’ relationship. Ben Guillory (who recently excelled as W.E.B. DuBois), Producing Artistic Director of The Robey Theatre Company, ably directs his duet in a year that has seen other noteworthy Black-themed productions, including the aforementioned Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington at LATC and Trouble in Mind, as well as Rogue Machine’s presentation of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs at the MET Theatre.
The East West Players and Robey Theatre Company co-production of Yohen is at East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles, through Nov. 19. Info: www.eastwestplayers.org; www.robeytheatrecompany.com.
Ed Rampell co-wrote Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas, Pearl Harbor in the Movies and The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.