Wisdom Bridge Theatre

Sab Shimono is a smooth veteran actor with credits ranging from Broadway’s Mame and Pacific Overtures to a harvest of TV guest spots on The Waltons, M*A*S*H, Max Headroom, and others. But chances are good that you, like me, have never heard of him. Marc Hayashi is the sensual young star of the art-house favorite Chan Is Missing. He was also featured in The Karate Kid Part II, Tales of the Meeting and Parting, and the recent Laserman. But we probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.

These two are the actors–not the roles–currently playing in Philip Kan Gotanda’s striking Yankee Dawg You Die at Wisdom Bridge Theatre. (Hayashi, who suffered a slight injury after opening night, is now back.) This is a heartbreaker of a story, but one in which the pathos does not overwhelm the humor and the anger does not suffocate the dignity.

That we may be truly seeing Shimono and Hayashi for the first time is in many ways as important as the scripted story. Our inability to identify Shimono and Hayashi may well lie in our own attitudes, but at least some of the blame must surely fall on Hollywood.

If Shimono were white, wouldn’t he have been another Richard Chamberlain–a thin, elegant leading man on the stage and in TV miniseries? And if Hayashi were white, might he have challenged Charlie Sheen in Wall Street or played on the sympathetic side in Platoon?

Surely these two actors are talented and attractive enough to have caught our eye earlier. But in an entertainment cosmos where Asian Americans play at best ambient roles and at worst criminals, Shimono and Hayashi, like so many others, have been passed up, overlooked, or simply never considered for parts that do not fit our preconceived notions of Asian Americans. “Why can’t I play somebody named Jones?” Hayashi reads from the script. You get the feeling he knows these words by heart.

In Yankee Dawg You Die Shimono and Hiyashi do not merely play two Asian American actors establishing a tense, uneasy friendship. The real lives and the scripted lives fold eerily into each other. Shimono’s Vincent Chang is a smooth veteran actor of stage and screen; Hayashi’s Bradley Yamashita is a brash young actor, the recent lead in an art-house film.

Yankee Dawg You Die is not so much about getting work for Asian American actors as it is about role models and self-image. “I never turn down a role,” exults Chang, who thinks it’s important to work and wring whatever dignity for himself and Asian Americans he can from any role, no matter how humiliating. But Yamashita believes the ultimate tragedy is that Chang has never had the luxury of turning down a role because parts for actors like themselves are so rare that whatever comes along must be accepted in order to get the bills paid.

Times are changing, the aggressively optimistic Yamashita tells Chang. He corrects the elder actor: they are not Orientals anymore, but Asian Americans. “You know, black, not Negro,” he says. “Women, not chicks. Gay, not homosexual.” Orientals, sniffs Chang, must be only rugs. It’s a bitter little moment, and it explodes later when Chang, defending himself, tells Yamashita “Asian Americans didn’t exist back then”–back when he sang about “tea moons and rice cakes” in what was referred to as the chop-suey circuit.

There’s a hunger in Gotanda’s script, especially when Yamashita desperately tells Chang about the night when he was riding around with his girlfriend and heard Neil Sedaka blasting out of the radio and thought a Japanese American rock ‘n’ roller had finally arrived. But nothing is quite as painful as when Chang, once more defending himself from Yamashita’s derision, claims that he once got the girl in a movie. Yamashita, who knows Chang’s filmography inside out, is puzzled. Finally Chang sighs. “It was edited out,” he says about his one big screen kiss. In the audience, you can almost feel the heartache. Later, Chang asks us “Why can’t you see me as I really am?”

Yankee Dawg You Die, which was included in the Gay & Lesbian Arts Celebration schedule, also has a very subtle gay subplot. If you want to, you can probably miss it (which makes one wonder why it was included in the listings). Its purpose is more to heighten the issues of self-hatred and self-denial–another layer about concealment and compromises.

Of particular note are the sets and projections in this production. Michael S. Philippi’s sleek, modular design suggests both traditional Japan and modern California. It’s effortless and flexible enough to accommodate a wide spectrum of moods and ambience.

The only disappointment of Yankee Dawg You Die is its pat ending. Everything falls together too quickly, too neatly. For obvious political reasons, it may have seemed better to end on this clear upbeat note, but it might have been more honest to be more cynical.