Stephen Sumida starring in LETTERS OF SURESH. Photo Credit: Quinlan Corbett.

Most people in Seattle know Stephen Sumida for his respected career as a professor at the University of Washington Ethnic Studies Department where he ended his teaching career. Before that he taught at the University of  Michigan, Washington State University and the University of Hawai’i. He also coordinated the Pacific Northwest Asian American Conference and co-founded Talk Story Inc., a cultural organization for research in Hawai’i’s literature and arts. He received a Fulbright Professorship to teach in Tokyo and has been honored with the James Dolliver Visiting Professorship in The Humanities at the University of Puget Sound. But beyond his academic career, Sumida has had a passion for the stage. Recently, when he sent out an email stating that his upcoming role in Letters of Suresh would be the last time he would appear on stage, I grew curious. Below is an interview we did with him recently. 

The interview is prefaced with his own biographic notes he penned for the play’s program notes. 

“I’ve become old enough to brag, like some youngers do in their bio notes. Six years ago I said it would be my last show. I’d panicked about memorizing my lines in Lloyd Suh’s American Hwangap at West of Lenin Theater. In the Sunday matinee on opening weekend, in February 2018, I had a “white out,” standing dumb on stage, knowing where I was and why, but unable to remember a single word of the monologue I was to deliver. My mind was out during two scenes.  My body took over, my mouth paraphrasing from the weeks of tough rehearsals we’d had.  

“My acting experience had been long. I began at center stage in shows at my high school in Hawai‘i, Teahouse of the August Moon and The King and I being two of the few American shows available, with Asian characters, at that time.  In college in Massachusetts, I avoided work in theater because it was all, exclusively white, with no outreach to the likes of me. Then in the ‘70s, a gang of us ran the first Asian American theater in Seattle, renaming the Theater Ensemble of Asians (TEA) by calling ourselves the Asian Exclusion Act, which in turn became the Northwest Asian American Theater (NWAAT). In one of the now ancient, “classic” dramas in this ethnic theater genre, I partnered with Bea Kiyohara, in Momoko Iko’s Gold Watch.  

“Survivors of that audience today remember, like it or not, the full nudity we performed when the family bathed, at Christmas of 1941, in their farmhouse o-furo tub big enough to hold them all, at that audacious time, the ‘70s in American theater. In the decades that followed, “non-traditional casting” arose, which however became a chance for white actors to catch roles as Othello and other colored characters, while we Asian Americans remained treated as “minorities.” In 1993 Performance Network in Ann Arbor, MI, called on me to consult and to act in Philip Kan Gotanda’s Yankee Dawg You Die. I won a Best Actor award, in Michigan, for playing Vincent Chang in that first Asian American play in that city and probably the state. Moving my research and teaching of Asian/Pacific American literature to the University of Washington in 1999, I was called upon again to perform—with SIS Productions, ReAct, Book-It Theater, Breaking the Silence, West of Lenin, ACT, Seattle Public Theater, and other companies as needed. We “mature” Asian American male actors have become a dying breed even while scripts by Asian American playwrights have grown in number and have begun to take the fathers in the dramas more seriously, not just stereotypically as dictator “patriarchs” whose roles usually had been to oppose their daughters’ relationships with white men. Yes indeedy. The first time I ever got a hug, or even just a handshake, on stage was in American Hwangap. Kathy Hsieh, playing my ex-wife, and I hugged and kissed in an unprecedented love scene. So neutered had we men been. You’d think that all the Asian American children in previous plays, children like Asian American playwrights themselves, had been virgin births.  

“Though I’d become a “professional” actor, my profession was teaching in universities—a professor. I am one of the founders of the academic field of “Asian American literature,” in my case including the literature of Hawai’i, and of the field of multicultural American literature as well. I was the first full-time faculty member with expertise in Asian American literature in any university’s English department. I was the first Asian American president of the American Studies Association. I have taught and given talks across a hemisphere from Hawai‘i to Syria, and across and up and down the USA.  

“I am the husband of Gail Nomura, father of Emi Suzuki, Jiji to her and Kyle’s daughters Clare, Alice, and Margaret Aina. I have died and returned twice in my life, maybe thrice, the “last” time a year ago. Since that time, I’m enveloped inside the last word of Father Hashimoto in Letters of Suresh

Peace, Stephen Sumida.”

Alan Chong Lau: What inspires you to get on stage?

Stephen Sumida: I have a practical answer. I’ve felt that for me to be a teacher in my classrooms, I should at the same time be a “student” in other activities. For me the rule was, “One director on the set. One sensei in the dojo. One captain of the boat.” I’d be a crew member, an Aikido practitioner, and an actor, in each case following instructions and orders, and learning. This “interview” right now gets me to feel that I also like to show off, like being at center stage—but under someone else’s direction. On the opposite side, I’d be the boss in a class I’d be teaching.

ACL: What’s been your favorite role?

SS: The role as Vincent Chang, the name that a Nisei named Shig Nakata adopted after WWII to dodge discrimination for being Japanese American. Vincent has been that oddball Asian male actor in all the movies seen in reruns on TV by the time, in the 1980s, a brash young actor, Bradley Yamashita, studies his every move and yet criticizes the old actor for playing all the stereotypical parts. The play is Philip Kan Gotanda’s Yankee Dawg You Die. All of this is fictional, but based on pieces of Asian American actors’ experiences. The actor Jack Soo, for instance, was named Goro Suzuki at birth. After WWII he changed his name to sound like he was Chinese American, in order to give his acting aspirations a chance. He was a star supporting actor in Flower Drum Song and was a regular in the TV series, Barney Miller.  Gotanda’s Vincent Chang is a composite too of Mako, Jimmy Shigeta, and Sessue Hayakawa and Paul Wong, a brilliant young dancer in the Forbidden City, in San Francisco of the ‘30s to ‘50s. Remember any of them?

ACL: Your most challenging role?

SS: Possibly as Mr. Lee in the stage adaptation, by Annie Lareau, of the novel by Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Annie directed the show, which began with a cast of around 26, most of us Asian Americans, in Seattle’s Book-It Theatre, 2012. We found that we had to ask the novelist Ford for permission, several times, to revise the script to align it historically. For instance, in the novel the father of Keiko, the main girl character, is in Ford’s novel an Issei lawyer. But we know that Issei were barred from practicing law in WA. So we had to change the father into a Nisei lawyer, making Keiko a 14-year-old Sansei sharing close friendship with the protagonist, Henry Lee. We had to roll with such revisions. Mr. Lee, Henry’s father, appears to many readers to be the villain by his hot opposition to Henry’s having a Japanese American friend. When called to audition for the part of Mr. Lee, however, I decided, as the play’s directors commented about the audition, to “humanize” Mr. Lee with a touch of his understanding of his son and the puppy love for Keiko. My motive was this: I would refuse the part, if a Mr. Lee, a Chinese immigrant in Seattle’s Chinatown, were cast as the villain as if he were “responsible” for the suffering of Japanese Americans when they’re ejected from Seattle in April 1942. The head director, Annie Lareau, agreed to my interpretation, saying that the novel has only one point of view, the boy Henry’s, whereas our stage drama had 26 points of view and more, of every actor and crew member, making drama, not unanimity. Mr. Lee is entitled to his point of view, on stage. Part of my developing this character was my trying to learn Cantonese dialect expressions, for Mr. Lee to speak and cuss, a language that Jamie Ford’s novel doesn’t outright “speak.” The character Mr. Lee in this play had a lot of moving parts for me to learn, or to devise, and to perform. I like the challenge.

ACL: Your biggest disappointment?

SS: In  the theater, and shared by many, was the cancellation, in 2017, of the ACT (A Contemporary Theatre, Seattle) project, which was to be the first stage adaptation in English of the Japanese epic, Heike Monogatari (as The Tale of the Heike, co-written by Philip Kan Gotanda and Yusuf El Guindi). Our director Kurt Beattie had begun the Heike project around 2012, following his mounting of the Ramayana on the ACT stage that fall. By the end of 2016 he was able to plan staged readings of the Heike script-in-progress, to give the playwrights a view of their work, on its feet. The first of three staged readings took place at the end of January 2017. Kurt had enlisted me as a consultant to the project, but when he scheduled the first reading, he asked me to play the role of Taira-no-Kiyomori, the (in-)famous head of the Heike clan, a ruthless leader who raised his clan from the military class of samurai up into the Imperial ranks, historically in the 12th century. The Heike, Taira clan were upstart rulers of Japan for a moment, then were annihilated by the Genji, Minamoto clan, who under Yoritomo in Kamakura became the Shoguns, the warrior class in charge of Japan. Kurt Beattie I think rightly had ambitions for a world-class production. In 2017, the productions of world-class epics adapted for the stage included, in the fall, a huge work, the Hindu Mahabharata (I think) performed by Kabuki actors in the Kabuki-za, Grand Kabuki, of Tokyo, stage elephants and all. But after our third public reading performance of Heike, in late summer 2017, ACT canceled the project. We had to write our many Japanese and world supporters, by that time, that “the Heike lose again.”  The challenge I had given myself as Kiyomori, for eight centuries conventionally considered a historical villain who led his clan into tragedy, was to give Kiyomori a sense of humor—a relish for irony, wits, and sarcasm. And yet again it was.a role in which playing an “old” Asian man, again I would die in the middle of the play, in Kiyomori’s historical case, from a viral epidemic in the Capital, Kyoto. In the third staged reading, 2017, I also had the pleasure of performing the role of Kiyomori’s Imperial nemesis, the Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who survives through the end of the epic.

ACL: What satisfaction does acting on stage give you, what itch does it scratch?

SS: Well, this is also fundamental to my work in literary studies and teaching: I like to assume that a writer of a poem, a prose fiction, or of drama—and this goes also for many writers of non-fiction, especially autobiographers, who can be most selective of what details to include—has written, worked, and re-worked the words repeatedly, layer by layer, to get it “right,” to get both the explicit words and the implicit subtexts to convey “meanings” and some manner of beauty; so that a reader may read, re-read, analyze, question, ponder, and infer or intuit a writing over and over again, to comprehend the dialogue that’s occurring among the parts and features of the words and how they’re arranged and deployed. We readers may seem to reach an “understanding” of the authors in such ways, but this understanding is something fluid, changeable with re-readings, yet with a core of something we’d call the “literal meaning” to begin with. In this way, for right now I can say that drama and theater, performance of drama, are the enactment of this fluid “understanding” of a playwright and of words. So—literature, including drama, is not “real life,” in that we don’t speak and interact with one another, in “daily life,” in the exacting ways that a writer gets the piece of writing to perform. Eh. I don’t quite know why this appreciation for verbal precision should matter so much, but it keeps me busy and out of worse mischief.

ACL: How important are interactions with fellow actors and with a director?

SS: Not unique, but theater is one among activities that requires great intensity of collaborative action that, however, disappears once the final show is over. Together we strike the set. The empty stage is then taken over by the next intense group, and so on. An ephemeral art. I’m inexperienced enough to feel that I’ll never forget these actors, crew, and director, but the shows do end, and awesome ensembles of artists go away, the artists interacting with new individuals and groups. I tend to feel that my interactions with directors have been most important: One director on the set! But that’s because there are implicit jobs to do: the director teaches, the actor follows instructions and learns. Fellow actors become closer and closer friends for the duration of work on a show, but almost exclusively in terms and shop-talk of theater, not so much of other aspects of our lives and experiences. On stage, in performances, inter-actions among us actors is most important, an obvious and integral part of the artistry and its subtleties and nuances. Again, a precision is part of the art, whereas most of our interactions in life apart from the theater stage are much more random. On stage, “realism” and “real life” are illusions.

ACL: What research goes into a role?

SS: My work in Asian/Pacific American literary studies includes much knowledge that’s useful in developing a role in plays I’m in—since I choose to act in Asian American roles and plays. I also look online for information. Researching contexts and backgrounds isn’t just a random matter, to me. The work of what’s called a “dramaturg” is important, some expertise someone on staff has in the history of the times and places in a play. Dramaturgy has been a feature of the Asian American Theater course I introduced and taught, from 1999 to 2015, at UW, Dept of American Ethnic Studies. This course was different from, say, a course emphasizing acting, directing, and design arts and skills in the School of Drama, by the way that my course was conducted in interdisciplinary historical, literary, cultural, and theater studies.

ACL: Why is this, Letters of Kuresh, my “last” play at center stage?  

SS: My memory is still pretty sharp, but with age this means that it’s increasingly harder for me to memorize lines. Every word, sentence, speech in a text reminds me of prior uses of the word or words, and this slows down and even blocks memorization. My body slows me down too, with age. David Hsieh the director persuaded me to take the role of Father Mitsuo Hashimoto in Letters of Suresh by exploiting my anxiety, his knowing me. He said that we four actors in the play wouldn’t have to memorize our lines, strictly speaking, since we’ll be “reading” the letters of Suresh and the others, onstage. Rajiv Joseph deliberately wrote the drama this way, during the pandemic when live theater was shut down. The pressure is on, first on the playwright himself, to write what in effect are monologues that have to grab and grip audience attention, and second on us in the show, to give those words, coming out of our talking heads, life. Forget memorizing. Give words life. I don’t expect to be offered a role like this again.  

Letters of Suresh by Rajiv Joseph is a joint production of ReAct Theatre and Pratidhwani. It runs from April 24 – May 18, 2024 at 12th Avenue Arts at 1620 -12th Ave. on Capitol Hill.  Directed by David Hsieh and Julie Beckman, the cast includes, besides Sumida, Mona Leach, Nirvana Patnaik and Marianna de Fazio. The play is a sequel to Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper which plays in repertory on alternative nights. In the city of Nagasaki, the lives of four individuals intersect through a series of heartfelt letters. The play is an exploration of love, memory and the enduring impact of handwritten words. For tickets, try www.reacttheatre.org. For more information, email [email protected] OR [email protected].

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