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REVIEW: Performance Artist Traces His Nisei Mother’s Journey

Dan Kwong recounts the life story of his late mother Momo Nagano in his powerful new work “What? No Ping-Pong Balls?” at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum in Little Tokyo.

By DEBORAH WONG, Special to The Rafu Shimpo

On Friday, June 1, at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum in Little Tokyo, solo multimedia performance artist Dan Kwong collaborated with renowned taiko drummer Kenny Endo to celebrate the life of Kwong’s mother Momo Nagano (1925-2010), a remarkable Nisei who prevailed over sexism and racism as an artist and single mother through the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Borrowing the title of Nagano’s autobiography, “What? No Ping-Pong Balls?” traces her journey from girlhood in Los Angeles to a WWII incarceration camp; a defiant marriage to a Chinese immigrant; divorce and single motherhood; and a call within to become an artist.

One of her works, “American Families” (2001), hangs in the building’s foyer on exhibit in conjunction with Kwong’s performance. It is a testimony to the Los Angeles neighborhood referred to as 30th Street, where she grew up, and features the names of the Japanese American families who were forcibly removed from the neighborhood during WWII.

Kwong’s trademark humor, physicality, and political awareness inform the play from beginning to end. The two-hour show moved quickly. Certainly it is a loving son’s depiction of his mother, but Kwong’s ability to flip between humor and ironic critique offered at once a first-hand family history and an Asian American artist’s reflection on another Asian American artist.

The play is a deeply feminist story about a Nisei woman’s lifelong rejection of sexism and male domination. As a divorced single mother, Nagano faced ostracism from the Japanese American community, and as an artist working in the feminine medium of weaving, she was easily devalued.

Kwong makes the case that she was an extraordinary artist and a gently but relentlessly independent Asian American woman. Told repeatedly that she should settle for less, she forged her own path, and her four children had to improvise their family life with her because no models existed for a single mother-artist nuclear family during the conservative 1950s-’60s.

The set was minimal but endlessly reshuffled. Kwong constantly rearranged five wooden boxes made by local artist Chris Tashima: they became a chair, an ocean wave, a tree, his bigoted 4th-grade teacher, and more. In the rear of the stage, a stool and an indigo shawl provided a quiet sanctuary where Kwong sat and voiced his mother, reading sections from her autobiography.

To the right, a vertical panel of netting evoked both the camouflage nets made by Nagano in camp and, later, her artistic work, as Kwong periodically wove strips of fabric through its warp and weft. His famous baby puppet – a bunraku-like baby body with Kwong’s talking head above it – provided hilarious and pointed commentary on what it was like to grow up as a multiethnic Asian American boy with a rebellious mother.

Dan Kwong (second from right) discusses his work during a Q&A session after the performance. He is joined by (from left) co-director Page Leong, taiko drummer Kenny Endo and Nobuko Miyamoto of Great Leap. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

A constant stream of Kwong’s video art and commentary was projected onto a screen at stage center, featuring everything from 1960s TV commercials to home photos and movies of Nagano at different points in her life. Lauren Tom’s cameo video turn as a psychotic sociologist of Japanese American divorce talking with Kwong’s baby Dan puppet was a high point.

Kwong’s interviews with Japanese American single mothers from several generations, including Nobuko Miyamoto, Atomic Nancy Sekizawa, Susan Kawashima, Otome Nagano, and Diane Ujiiye, were interspersed through the play. Each woman reflected in deeply personal terms on the pressures of racialized and gendered expectations on them as mothers, individuals, and artists.

Kenny Endo’s live music was central to the play, opening it up in profound ways. Stationed throughout in his one-man setup of multiple taiko and smaller percussion instruments, Endo’s score (created in collaboration with Kwong and co-director Page Leong) was beautifully responsive to Kwong’s every move. Both low-key and spare, Endo’s amplification of Kwong’s words and movement were entirely in keeping with taiko’s roots as theatrical accompaniment (for kabuki or Nihon buyo), sometimes punctuating movement and sometimes indicating a shift in perspective.

Whenever Kwong began to read from his mother’s autobiography, Endo offered a sweeping riff on the chimes that literally transformed Kwong into his mother. The only time Endo let loose with a full-on taiko solo was after Kwong described how his mother left behind any middle-class expectations of proper behavior in 1969, and Endo’s no-holds-barred solo on the odaiko communicated the unleashing of Nagano’s powerful creativity.

Kwong is currently in residence in the historic old Daimaru Hotel in the heart of Little Tokyo as one of four artists featured in the inaugural run of the Little Tokyo Service Center’s +LAB Artist Residency Program. His work was recently featured in the Little Tokyo Mini-Golf Open. This creative commentary, along with “What? No Ping-Pong Balls?,” cements Dan Kwong’s status as a pre=eminent Asian American storyteller and culture bearer.

Kwong’s stunning range of skills as an artist were the heart of his performance. He is a visual artist, a writer, a performance artist, a documentarian, a movement artist, and more. He wove together these modes gracefully and seamlessly, which is perhaps another layer of homage to his artist mother.

Deborah Wong is a professor of music at UC Riverside and an ethnomusicologist who specializes in the musics of Thailand and Asian America. She is the author of “Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music” (Routledge, 2004).

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