Becoming Hisaye

Jully Lee as Hisaye Yamamoto and Donathan Walters as Bayard Rustin in Tom Jacobson’s “Mexican Day.” (Photo by John Perrin Flynn)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Hisaye Yamamoto was a noted short-story writer whose works have been adapted for screen and stage, but “The Ballad of Bimini Baths: Mexican Day,” currently being presented by Rogue Machine at the Met Theatre in Los Angeles, is believed to mark the first time that the author herself has been a character in a play.

Yamamoto (1921-2011), also known by her married name, DeSoto, wrote such stories as “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake,” which were combined by filmmaker Emiko Omori in the TV drama “Hot Summer Winds” in 1991. Her story “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” was the basis of a performance piece by storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki. (All three stories are in the book “Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories.”)

She briefly worked as a journalist upon being released from the Poston camp in Arizona, landing a job at The Los Angeles Tribune, an African American weekly, where she gained insight into the black community’s struggles. Her duties included compiling a list of lynchings that had happened across the country during the past week, and her encounter with an African American family that moved into a white neighborhood and later died in a suspicious fire is chronicled in her essay “A Fire in Fontana.”

It was during this time, in 1948, that Yamamoto organized a series of pickets protesting racial discrimination at Bimini Baths, an L.A. hot springs resort, where people of color were allowed only on “Mexican Day” — the day before the pools were drained. According to author and Nichi Bei Weekly columnist Greg Robinson, the campaign lasted several weeks and ended inconclusively.