Jacqueline Misaye as Sophie and Jessica Jade Andres as Hiro in East West Players’ West Coast premiere of “Kentucky” by Leah Nanako Winkler. (Photo by Michael Lamont)
By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment
Leah Nanako Winkler arrived more than flustered, bounding into a dressing room at East West Players after having endured what should have been a 20-minute trek from Universal City to Little Tokyo.
Ms. Winkler, meet the 101.
The evening’s performance of her new play, “Kentucky,” was barely 90 minutes from curtain, and Winkler had plenty of tasks beforehand, including a quick chat with The Rafu.
Leah Nanako Winkler was born in Japan, raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and now lives in New York City.
Now a hard-studying MFA student in Brooklyn, Winkler has composed an honest look at family, with all its glory as well as warts, drawing on her experiences growing up in Lexington, Kentucky.
Her play follows Hiro, a woman on the verge of big-city career success whose homecoming is driven by the desire to dissuade her born-again sister from entering into a marriage that Hiro finds unsavory. Dealing with her family’s southern leanings, her own misgivings and a talking cat, Hiro’s mission is derailed into a completely unplanned direction.
“For me it was important to see a mixed-race family on stage and not seen through rose-colored glasses, that they have their faults, that they’re not perfect,” Winkler explained.
She said she is encouraged by the slow trend toward diversity in mass media, citing TV shows like “Modern Family,” but said a more honest approach is important.
“That show is great, but it’s kind of like ‘The Brady Bunch.’ It’s so positive, and you don’t see a gritty, real dysfunctional family, so it was important for me to include that on stage.”
Diversity – or rather, lack thereof – in show business has been a topic of great and heated discussion in recent years. The Oscars have been slammed for its nominating few if any people of color for its major awards, and the “whitewashing” of Asian characters and actors seems to be gaining momentum in recent years.
In a recent Rafu story about the casting of the animated “Kubo and the Two Strings,” veteran character actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa said the key to diversity on screen will be to take creative control before the cameras roll.
“The perfect project will come when we have the means to create our own stories on our own terms,” Tagawa said.
Winkler, born in Japan and raised in Kentucky, would not only seem to agree, she’s making it her life’s work.
“For me, it’s important to be positive,” she said. “As a storyteller and someone who creates content, it’s important to empower people who feel that they don’t have a distinct identity.”
Identity is a topic that has impacted Winkler in ways many cannot imagine. As a child in Japan, she was invariably viewed as “the American,” a label that had its advantages as well as drawbacks. Her unconventional looks landed her some modeling jobs, and she enjoyed a fair amount of celebrity.
But there’s also the concept of junsui – purity – that continues to be a mindset in Japan. Winkler referred to the recent criticism directed at Arianna Miyamoto, who was named Miss Universe Japan 2015, only to be the subject of criticism because she is of mixed race and “not Japanese enough.”
“There are a lot of interesting conversations when you’re hafu, and in Japan, I don’t think it’s widely accepted yet,” Winkler said.
Dian Kobayashi as Masako, Jessica Jade Andres as Hiro, and James B. Harnagel as James in East West Players’ production of “Kentucky.” (Photo by Michael Lamont)
After moving to Lexington, she said the inverse became the norm, that she was seen as the “Japanese” kid in the neighborhood.
“I don’t think there’s a large vocabulary that exists to describe what it means to be of mixed race, not yet,” she added, and then described a conversa