Enter Gotanda: Ground-breaking Playwright Becomes a Ground-breaking Professor

By Heidi Benson

The Professor enters talking, students in tow, his short-brimmed straw hat at a tilt. Windows are thrown open and spring air floods the classroom. The atmosphere is so unstuffy you’d hardly guess the teacher is one of the most influential American playwrights of his generation.

In a three-decade body of work, Philip Kan Gotanda has illuminated the marginalized. His plays have been performed to critical acclaim at American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Rep, and around the world. The recipient of Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and NEA fellowships, among many honors, he is also a musician, screenwriter, and filmmaker whose films have shown at Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival. Now, after a year as Artist-in-Residence at Cal, and time teaching in multiple departments, Gotanda has been appointed professor in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies.

Today his afternoon class—Contemporary American Drama for the Contemporary Theater Artist—buzzes with late-semester energy. Outside, every tree on campus is blossoming. Inside, finals loom.

“Shall we hold class on the lawn?” he asks.

It’s unanimous.

“Any questions about grades?”

Yes! What about the papers they’ve written over the course of the semester—will they count as much as the scenes they’re feverishly preparing for performance?

“You’ll be graded on your joie de vivre,” Gotanda says, radiating calm. “Your willingness to jump in.” His good humor is infectious and, evidenced by the tone of the class, as irrepressible as his passion for the language of theater.

Gotanda’s new tenured post will expand his reach: In addition to teaching and creating new work for the University and beyond, he is charged with expanding the playwriting curriculum and making it a core element of the program. Thus far, he has instituted a two-semester playwriting course, which allows him to work with students for a full school year, plus a playwriting showcase to present student plays.

It couldn’t come at a more interesting time. From texting to tweeting, new information delivery systems have not made storytelling obsolete. In fact, the limits of digital communication—which is instant but abbreviated, intimate yet remote—only underscore the value of live performance.

“The play is not this paper we hold in our hands,” Gotanda tells his students. “The play is in that moment of exchange between the actors and the audience. It’s not on the page. It only happens live.”

On the lawn behind Mulford Hall, sunglasses come out, laptops snap shut, and discussion resumes of the play of the week: Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz. Set in 1929 Tampa, the Pulitzer Prize–winning play explores the lives of Cuban cigar-factory workers whose jobs are threatened by industrialization. One of many things they stand to lose is the tradition of the lector, who reads novels aloud as the workers roll cigars. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the novel in question, and its love story and themes are mirrored in the play.

Gotanda works through the text in sections, asking students to read parts aloud, then breaking to ask about character development, dramatic pacing, and ultimately, meaning.

“It’s about retaining the culture versus modernization,” one student suggests.

“Machines are stealing their jobs,” adds another. “Do they want to be part of the new century? Do they want to become more American?”

“Right,” Gotanda says. “What to keep. What to lose.” 

That question resounds through the Theater 121 syllabus, in plays such as Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson. Indeed, the dilemma perfectly describes the dichotomy at the heart of Gotanda’s own body of work. 

First, he was a songwriter. “I’ve been forming bands since I was 13,” he says. In one of them, he played guitar and sang with David Henry Hwang on violin. Gotanda took pre-med courses as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz before spending a year and a half learning the art of pottery making as an apprentice in a village north of Tokyo. Upon returning, he studied Japanese art at UC Santa Barbara.

But Gotanda’s Hawaiian-born father, a doctor with a large practice in Stockton, was wary of careers in the arts. When the younger Gotanda returned to California, he enrolled at Hastings College of Law and earned a J.D., although he never practiced. One of his first plays, A Song for a Nisei Fisherman in 1983, was dedicated to his father and closely based on his life. 

Gotanda had the twin talents required for playwriting, what playwrights Anne García-Romero and Alice Tuan called “an ability to shape-shift from monk to master of ceremonies.” Productions of new plays came fast and furious. In the 1980s, Gotanda took on Asian stereotyping in Yankee Dawg You Die, a hot-blooded confrontation between a young Asian-American actor and his elder, who built a career playing demeaning roles.

Increasingly, family dynamics became Gotanda’s focus. A 1991 play he calls pivotal has been compared to Long Day’s Journey into Night.

“Fish Head Soup is an angry play,” Gotanda says. It’s about “the idea of passing on this illness, this internalized sense of racism and how it manifests itself in your life…. So that was my one play where I finally said what I wanted to say about those issues. And then I could go on and write other things.”

As Helen Zia wrote in her 2001 book, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, “Gotanda’s characters captured the very real conversations taking place among Asian-Americans.”

Some of these conversations occur in the aftermath of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. More than 120,000 people, mostly American citizens, were forced from their homes with nothing more than what they could carry, and bussed to “relocation centers” in remote corners of the United States. When the war ended and they were released, many found their homes, property, and businesses had been confiscated.

The internment is central to Sisters Matsumoto, which was a 1999 co-production with the Asian American Theater Company. The action takes place in 1945. Three sisters and their husbands return from a prison camp in Arkansas to find their family farm near Stockton defaced with anti-Japanese graffiti. Relationships are further tested when they learn the farm, irretrievably, has been sold.

The story was informed by the playwright’s own history. Both sides of his family—long part of Stockton’s large Japanese-American community, which was entirely uprooted—were relocated to an Arkansas internment camp. After the war, his parents started their family.

“My mother was a Nisei, born in America. She was an all-American kid. She loved America. She loved Japan. It was all fairly integrated, until she was imprisoned for three years for being Japanese-American,” says Gotanda. “I didn’t know the extent of my mother’s anger until the Daughters of the American Revolution came to the door,” he says. They wanted a donation. She gave them an earful.

The dislocations caused by World War II are still felt today. One San Francisco neighborhood was particularly transformed: Japantown, the setting for Gotanda’s 2007 play, After the War. As Japanese-Americans were evacuated, people seeking work in the shipyards flooded the city, among them many African-Americans who were glad to leave the South. The play premiered in 2007 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco with a diverse cast and a movable set—a three-story Victorian through which families could travel room-to-room and through time. A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, who worked closely on the project, credits Gotanda with forging a real examination of what it means to be an American.

Gotanda “explores intercultural relationships in fascinating ways,” Perloff says. “For instance, the friendship between Earl and Chester in After the War, a complex black man and a dispossessed Japanese-American musician, is unusual and rich in the American theater.”

This March, an altogether new, musical adaptation of the play, renamed After the War Blues, was staged on campus in Zellerbach Playhouse by Gotanda’s students. It featured dance, jazz, and even haiku written by Japanese internment camp prisoners and set to blues melodies.

One cast member, second-year student Dela Meskienyar, got a double dose of Gotanda during spring semester. She also took his playwriting workshop.

“Some conservatory programs want you to stick with one [discipline] or the other,” says Meskienyar. “But it’s good to have more than one skill in the arts.” She could be paraphrasing one of the playwright’s own leitmotifs: No one is ever just one thing.

The stated aim of the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies is to teach “performance as a mode of critical inquiry, creative expression, and public engagement.” Although Gotanda’s own work has a strong political bent, he says what he looks for in candidates for the playwriting program isn’t ideology.

“I explore two things with every student,” he explains. “I try to figure out who they are and who they want to be…. Then I ask them what story they want to tell”—and how they want to tell it. Students are accepted based on writing samples. What does he look for? “Writers who have something to say and an urgency to express it.”

Back in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, an urgent new style of American theater was emerging in the Bay Area, particularly at The Eureka Theater. Among the playwrights in the mix were Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, David Henry Hwang, Cherrie Moraga, and Gotanda. His breakthrough plays, including the premiere of The Wash, played at the Eureka while Oskar Eustis, now artistic director of The Public Theater in New York, was the theater’s resident director.

“Philip is really an extraordinary artist,” says Eustis. “The trajectory of his career, which he has very carefully built, has taken him into movies, music, performance. He has been in a state of continuous reinvention of his practice as a theater artist. That’s a skill set any young writer in the theater today will have to have.”

By now, the young theater artists on the lawn behind Mulford Hall have donned hoodies. The circle has had to move twice to stay in the sun, and they are still parsing Anna in the Tropics. A student reading one role is struggling with the language, which includes some Spanish.

“It’s confusing,” Gotanda ventures. “It’s meant to be confusing: His language is shifting, the world is shifting. He’s losing control of his world.”

“I should get it,” the student says, laughing. “I’m half Mexican.” The class chuckles.

As Gotanda might remind them: No one is ever just one thing.

Heidi Benson is a former reporter and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, and a recent graduate of the University of San Francisco Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program.

From the Summer 2014 Apocalypse issue of California.
Filed under: Arts + Letters
Image source: Theater photo by Ryan Montgomery; profile photo by Lia Chang
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