Actress Sees Hopeful Message in ‘Yohen’

June Angela and Danny Glover in a scene from Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Yohen.” (Photo by Michael Lamont)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

James and Sumi Washington are at a crossroads after 37 years of marriage.

At the beginning of Philip Kan Gotanda’s two-character play “Yohen,” co-presented by East West Players and the Robey Theatre Company, directed by Ben Guillory and running through Nov. 19 at EWP, Sumi has asked James to move out of the house and to visit as if he is courting her again.

We learn about how they fell in love in occupied Japan when James was serving in the Army, and how both of their families disapproved of the marriage. After decades together, they still care for each other, but they have different interests (boxing for him, pottery for her) and, more importantly, different ideas of what they want to do with their lives. The title is a Japanese pottery term that refers to unpredictable changes that take place in the kiln.

June Angela plays Sumi opposite Danny Glover, who first played James opposite the late Nobu McCarthy at EWP in 1999.

For Angela, who has extensive stage, screen and singing credits going back decades, this was her first time working with Glover, who is known for such films as “The Color Purple” and the “Lethal Weapon” series.

She did one of Gotanda’s plays, “The Dream of Kitamura,” in New York, California and Hawaii, and recorded his “Ballad of Yachiyo” for L.A. Theatre Works’ “The Play’s the Thing” on National Public Radio.

June Angela

Asked if doing a two-character play is a challenge, Angela answered, “Well, first, you have to have stamina. This play is very intense. I think this play is so beautiful and I’m having a great time with Danny.”

Regarding the cultural clashes between the couple, she said, “In this world we all are living with many immigrant cultures every day. In the case of Sumi and James, two people with many differences from totally different worlds. But, through it all they share one most important thing — their love for each other. Hopefully, we can all still try to learn and appreciate all our differences.”

Angela is gratified by the responses she has gotten from audiences. “It’s been wonderful to see people being so moved. They say it leaves them still thinking about the lives of these two people. It’s been great to have them be so emotionally involved with the play. It’s still so relevant in today’s world, too …

“People have told me that Sumi and James are relatable as a long-time married couple whose lives change over many years, through ups and downs, good and trying times. It crosses all ethnicities.”

Angela has been performing since she was 5. Her first public appearance was as a model doing a runway fashion show for designer Bill Blass. “I still love what I do,” she said.

“Electric Company” Alum

From 1971 to 1977, she was a cast member on “The Electric Company,” a PBS show from the creators of “Sesame Street” that taught kids how to read. She was part of a singing group called The Short Circus and was the only member to appear during the entire run of the show. Other members included Irene Cara, who later had hits like “Fame.” The adult cast members included Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno.

“It was a worldwide TV series which people still remember today,” Angela said. “I meet adults and they say they grew up watching me. When I was doing the show — we taped in New York — kids on the subway would recognize me and start singing the opening theme of the show and we’d laugh.

“It was lots of work — learning songs, choreography, lines, recording and then shooting on camera — all this happening after school. But it wasn’t hard at all, it was fun. Growing up on the show working with Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno was great … I lost touch with the cast, except I would see Rita once in a while.

“Knowing that I was helping kids read was terrific. I liked everything about doing the show and nowadays, I’m recognized if I mention I was on the show. I still get fan letters to this day.”

June Angela (second from left) was a member of The Short Circus on the 1970s PBS series “The Electric Company.”

In 1976, she played the daughter of Pat Morita and Pat Suzuki on a short-lived ABC sitcom, “Mr. T and Tina.” She later played the daughter of Morita and Cloris Leachman in a TV drama, “Blind Alleys.”

“He was a wonderful man and we had fun doing comedy on the set,” Angela said of Morita. “It was about 10 years later when we were reunited as father and daughter, this time in a drama. When he saw me, he said that I grew up! We kept in touch afterward