L to R: Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, Jeanne Sakata, Michael Shepperd. Photo by Timothy Patterson.

HOT NIGHT IN THE CITY!  A night to cherish, thanks to Jon Lawrence Rivera and his theater company Playwrights’ Arena, who honored my wonderful friend Michael Shepperd and me the 2016 Lee Melville Awards for Outstanding Contribution to the Los Angeles Theatre Community, and Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell the Community Partner award for his amazing support and work on behalf of LA theatre, especially 99 seat theatres. We gathered with many friends and fellow LA theatre artists at this annual event, held this year in the beautiful Barnsdall Park.

My dear friend, the amazing playwright Luis Alfaro–pictured below–gave this wonderful introductory speech for my award, for which I’ll always be grateful.  Dear Luis–there is a reason “L.A.” stands for both Luis Alfaro and Los Angeles!  And to be introduced by you–who, more than anyone I know, embodies the vibrant, proud, exhilarating, adventurous and free-spirited soul of our beloved L.A. theatre scene–well, that was a dream come true.

A toast to my beloved Los Angeles theatre scene, and this amazing community of SoCal artists!  A toast to Jon Lawrence Rivera, and Playwrights’ Arena!

April 5, 2016

Did you know that Jeanne Sakata can fly?

She can.

In 1994 I saw a play, Hiro, written by Denise Uyehara and it starred Jeanne Sakata in a blue spandex unitard with arm and knee protectors. Very sexy, even for 1994.

It was in the old East West Players space on Santa Monica Boulevard, small and comfy and punishing. A hard space because back then there was no where for an actor to hide. We are as intimate with the performer as they are with us. We can see their bodies up close. The sweat, the tears, but also the commitment and the focus.

I believe the best theatre in Los Angeles is not in our big spaces, but in the small intimate theatre that houses something less than a set, but more important. Maybe our sacredness.

Jeanne was so committed. Running, if I remember correctly, from her crazy sister and mother. So trapped that the only place for Hiro to go was up; to the other side, ‘where things were interesting’, as she claimed.

Sometimes a performance leaves an impression. So much so that you want to follow the actor on their journey after that. They have planted a memory in your head. That wherever they go they will amaze you each time. And this actor/writer has not disappointed. Consistent is a word that is associated with this artist.

This actress, I thought, is of a special kind of actor. That tribe of those that become. That get lost in the role. That are ultimately unrecognizable as themselves. They assume all that the part asks of them as performers. She isn’t acting so much, as she is channeling. So much so, that I really thought she could fly.

I went home and wrote her name on my wall. I thought I was so cool in my old punky Silver Lake days tagging my wall with the names of all the people that I wanted to work with or had been inspired by. On there were names of people whose work I had seen and knew were of this special tribe;

Rosana De Soto, Ellen Stewart, Beah Richards, Carmen Zapata, Nobu McCarthy, Emily Kuroda, Mary Alice, Elizabeth Pena, Natsuko Ohama, Freda Foh Shen, Virginia Capers, Alma Martinez, Amy Hill, Miriam Colon, Tsai Chin, Ivonne Coll, Gloria Calome, Judith Malina, L. Scott Caldwell. On and on the names filled my wall.

Do you see a pattern here? In another world, another place, another society, where the humiliation of race is not so pronounced, any of these actresses of color would be recognized as national treasures, but not in our privileged world.

We don’t see ourselves in the mainstream, so we don’t see our possibility. And yet, there are those whose talents can not be denied. Whose work ethic and belief system is infectious because they radiate a certain truth. They are in the avant-garde because they tell stories without edit and that makes them pioneers. They are the visionaries. And to deny such talent is to deny a people their story. And when we do that, deny people their culture, we commit cultural genocide. And that is something we do as a society on a daily basis.

And yet, the actor continues to do the work. Out in the trenches, doing the regional theatres, originating roles and essaying the classics. On my wall of the mighty few who demand attention and praise, Jeanne Sakata, is the newly inducted.Her entire career, and I haven’t even mentioned all of the film and television work that she has done has been in service – to us.

  1. Jeanne Sakata walked through the audience at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle as Sonia Wong Pickford, romance novelist, the Asian Barbara Cartland, in Chay Yew’s memory play, Red. She is in a ridiculous wig and she is hiding some very important secrets. I didn’t recognize her. Where I last saw her in a serious role, here she is working the crowd like a veteran comedienne.
  2. I had the pleasure of watching her age in a not so graceful or even sweet manner in Velina Hasu Houston’s Calligraphy. In fact, her character is defiant and bitter and so full of rage and I am wondering where this lives in my wonderful friend Jeanne!

It’s of course, the work of the Gods and she is willing to go where the story needs to be told.

More recently she has picked up the pen herself and she is very good with that pen, as many great actors are. Her solo play, Hold These Truths, has been performed around the country, played off-Broadway, nominated for a Drama Desk Award, hit the regional circuit accompanied by many critically acclaimed reviews. The script is on display at the Library of Congress, Playwrights Archive. This woman is not messing around.

She is at once; the great chameleon actor; the empathetic Asian-American translator; the channel for her rich cultural history; the interpreter for the stories of her generation; the voice for the language of our plays; the inspiration that launches a thousand rewrites; She is the actor.

Praise be to the actors. For they translate our world and give it meaning. And this one actor has elevated her life and work to great charge and made great work. As a side note, let me end by saying that no one does it alone. Tonight we may be honoring her but we are also honoring community. Both in our field and out in the world.

And let me say that she has an extraordinary partner in her husband Tim who never seems to miss a performance.

Tonight It is my honor to present the Playwrights’ Arena Lee Melville Award to our friend Jeanne Sakata.