The One They Love

Jodi Kimura as Bloody Mary and Matt Rosell as Lt. Cable in a scene from “South Pacific.”

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

At the beginning of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” currently being performed at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, a group of U.S. sailors stationed on a remote island during World War II sing, “Bloody Mary is the one I love.”

Bloody Mary, played by Jodi Kimura, is a Tonkinese woman who trades with the sailors and calls them “stingy bastards” when they refuse to buy anything. She hopes for a better life for her daughter Liat (Hajin Cho) and wants her to marry Lt. Cable (Matt Rosell), who loves Liat but gets cold feet at the prospect of marrying a woman of color. He sings about racial prejudice in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Jodi Kimura

The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1949 and was made into a movie in 1958, is also known for such songs as “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk,” both sung by Bloody Mary, as well as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” Juanita Hall portrayed Bloody Mary on stage and screen. The role was played by Lori Tan Chinn in a 2001 made-for-TV movie.

A Yonsei born in Honolulu and raised on Maui, Kimura went to Kahului School and Maui High School, then attended University of Colorado, Boulder.

“There weren’t any ‘arts’ in my school, no choir, no drama program,” she recalled. “There was a band, so I played the French horn and was the drum major. But I was very active in my church choir and I did a production of ‘West Side Story’ at another high school on Maui. The first time I sang a solo in front of an audience was in a church youth group musical. I played a lamb! No one really knew I could ‘really’ sing until then, including me.

“Since then, it’s been falling into one kind of singing opportunity after another. In college, I had no intention of pursuing music, but took a voice class for fun. The teacher thought I had potential and had me sing for the voice faculty as my final. They offered me a small scholarship if I changed my major, so I double-majored in music. And then went on to get an oh-so-lucrative master’s in voice.”

Musical theater is her favorite “because I love the challenge of acting through singing. Sadly, there aren’t as many opportunities for Asian American singer/actors. You will see the token Asian in the ensemble but they are usually decent dancers. And in the business, I’m considered more of a ‘decent mover.’”

Role of a Lifetime

Kimura did not see “South Pacific” on stage until it returned to Broadway in 2008. “I was doing a concert in Montana with Broadway star Kelli O’Hara, who was starring in the Broadway revival. She insisted I come to New York to see her in the show and when I did, she arranged for me to audition for everyone at Lincoln Center. Unbelievable generosity!

Jodi Kimura as Bloody Mary in the Lincoln Center national tour of “South Pacific.” (Photo by Matt Polk)

“A few months later, in 2009, I was offered the first national tour of the show as the understudy for Bloody Mary. Months later, I took over the role and then was asked to do the Lincoln Center tour in the U.K. Since then, I’ve done the role in five regional houses …

“I had to create a back story for Bloody Mary, about how she got to the South Pacific, who Liat’s father was, and everything else that’s not in the script. I’ve done that work so long ago that I don’t even have to think much about it now, but I do find new things in every version of the show that I do because it involves a different director and a totally different cast …

“I love Bloody Mary because she is survivor and because she’s a strong, powerful woman in a man’s world making her own way with no apologies. I love her because she’s a single mother, an immigrant rising well above her lot in life and running her own successful business. And I love her because of her sense of humor, her curiosity, her intelligence, and her wit. But mostly, I love her because, despite her difficult circumstances, she has so much hope and fights for it with everything she has.

“Much like Bloody Mary, who came from Tonkin, China — modern-day Vietnam — to work on the French plantations, my ancestors came from Japan to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii. Like Bloody Mary, they learned ‘pidgin’ English and like Bloody Mary, they did everything they could to provide a better life for their kids. My Mary is very much inspired by my grandmother and aunties …

“There is a moment in the show when Mary thinks Cable is proposing to Liat, and she is overcome with pride, joy and relief that she has ‘won’ and her daughter will have a good life. And I think of my grandma every time. She always wanted to be a singer and I know she would have been so proud to see me living out her dream. Sadly, she died when I was in college … So the fact that I get to bring her to life every time I do this role means a lot.”

Stereotyped Character?

Kimura is aware that some regard Bloody Mary as a negative image. Years ago, one critic of her “overly Asian interpretation” of the character said it pandered to the “me love you long time” stereotype. The critic was a prominent Asian American actor whose work she respects.

“To be fair, he didn’t read the script. In the script, Bloody Mary is described as ‘small, yellow with slanted eyes.’ Even Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose intent was to write a show about race, were still subject to the limitations of their generation …

“I deliver the lines exactly as they were written … How else would a Vietnamese immigrant speak, learning English from sailors? In my opinion, to play her any other way would be racist, as if there is something wrong with English as a second language or something to be ashamed of. Bloody Mary says proudly, ‘Pretty soon I speak English good as any crummy GI.’

“Her humor, as I play her, doesn’t only come from the fact that her English is so limited, which is delightful at times, but mostly because you can tell how smart she is despite the language barrier. The Seabees make fun of her and see her as an obnoxious amusement, but she gets the last laugh every time.”

She is reminded of her grandmother, who was raised in Japan and came to Maui as a young woman. “She was a Japanese-school teacher. But at the outset of the war, when they whisked many of the teachers to internment camps, my grandmother went to work in the pineapple canneries, where she worked until she retired. So her English was always a struggle.

“When I was a kid, one day I asked my mom, ‘Why does Grandma keep telling me to walk around? Turns out my grandma was saying, ‘Wakaran,’ which is a pidgin form of saying ‘wakaranai,’ meaning, ‘I don’t understand.’ … These are the kinds of things I treasure about my grandma and where I came from and that definitely factors into how I play the character.

“My heart breaks every time before ‘Happy Talk’ when Bloody Mary is trying to convince Cable to stay and marry Liat and all she knows how to say is, ‘You like? You buy?’ Just like my heart breaks thinking about my grandmother trying to tell me she didn’t understand what I was saying … I, like the Seabees with Mary, had no idea how smart my grandmother was.

“And I don’t see Bloody Mary as a caricature or stereotype at all. In fact, the play is about challenging stereotypes and prejudice. As with all of the characters in the play, we meet them in the first act and we think we know who they are … But the second act forces you to go deeper, to see these characters as people and go with them on their journey as they choose love over prejudice. If people come away from my performance ‘offended’ by my interpretation, I think they’ve missed the point. But … if people are engaged in a discussion about race because of it, that’s great.”

From “Jesus Christ” to “Full Monty”

“South Pacific” is the only Rodgers and Hammerstein show Kimura has done, although “I love their work, particularly the old favorites, ‘Sound of Music’ and ‘Oklahoma,’ but those are predominantly cast Caucasian. The very first musical I saw was ‘The Sound of Music’ at a high school on Maui. Maria Von Trapp was a local Hawaiian girl, and I never doubted for one second that she was Austrian!”