Review: Anzu Lawson Opens Her Heart and Shares Her Soul in DEAR YOKO
I first met Anzu Lawson at the World Premiere of ROCK & ROLL'S GREATEST LOVERS, for which she wrote the book and lyrics and co-authored the music with Joerg Stoeffel, which told the Romeo and Juliet story of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, two rebels from opposite ends of the world who stood together in the name of LOVE only to face every kind of hate and tribulation. The 60-minute production of selected songs from the play was directed by Nell Teare and presented at the Lillian Theater during the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Multi-talented Anzu Lawson portrayed Yoko Ono in the production and dedicated the play's creation to the woman whose strength of spirit to carry the message of love, peace and self-acceptance into the world still rings true to this day.
Her fact-based recounting of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's love story against overwhelming odds of it succeeding, was expanded upon by Anzu into a full 24-song musical DEAR JOHN, WHY YOKO? staged at Cal State LA in April 2018, directed by Stephen Rothman with choreography by Mia Hjelte. I attended that performance and hoped news of it would reach the notice of Yoko Ono to inspire negotiations for either a feature film or other media production by obtaining her "seal of approval" so that the brilliance of Anzu's portrayal, as well as her incredible talent as a playwright and songwriter, could reach a larger audience. My fingers are still crossed that deal will happen to open up the eyes of the world to see Ono as more than just "the woman who broke up the Beatles," but as an artist who had the courage to speak her own truth and give her unwavering support for anyone who has ever been misunderstood for standing in the authenticity of their true selves.
But at that point, I was unaware of how Anzu's personal history inspired Ono's spirit to speak so directly to her until I was in the audience at her World Premiere solo show, DEAR YOKO, in which Anzu opened her heart and soul as she revealed how her personal history of non-acceptance as an Asian woman and her overwhelming depression was turned around when she discovered Ono as she studied her story and writings. During her 90-minute performance, directed by Jessica Lynn Johnson at the Whitefire Theatre, Anzu not only portrayed Ono with her signature dialect, hat and sunglasses, but also personal family members, rock musicians she met while touring as a singer/songwriter, agents and entertainment moguls who brought on the need for the #MeToo movement, and others who assisted her in turning her life around and accepting herself as the person she really was meant to be. And that road was never easy but so worth the journey.
Anzu Lawson (who plays Ashley Kim on NBC's Chicago Med) is an Asian-American actress who grew up in Southern California in a broken family. Her Asian mother and her white father (who met in Japan) divorced acrimoniously while she and her little sister were still little girls. When the court awarded her father sole custody of her younger sister, her mother Keiko (who could be Yoko Ono's twin in appearance) decided to flee with her two daughters to Tokyo, where she enrolled them in a Christian school. To say Anzu suffered from culture shock is certainly an understatement.
As she reached her teen years, Anzu became even more beautiful, which Keiko recognized, leading her to enter Anzu in beauty contests. The early fame, based simply on her appearance, landed Anzu a modeling contract at age 14. And from her own personal photos shared about her life during DEAR YOKO, each of her stories about how her physical beauty affected how Anzu saw herself and her self-worth as a person, certainly made the emotional impact it had upon her easy to comprehend, especially the love/hate relationship which developed between the traditional-thinking mother and rebellious daughter.
Missing America (after all, Anza was an American citizen) as her teen years progressed, world as a model took her to wild parties and where she met rock stars visiting Tokyo. Soon her singing ability and free spirit were encouraged by Jon Anderson of the supergroup Yes. After changing her name from Cristina to Anzu, she recorded a #1 song on the Tokyo pop charts and became a big J-Pop teen star. Several photos and videos shared of her performing as a rock star goddess revealed how Anzu's true self was emerging, and how this persona would not sit well with her conservative mother.
After Keiko finally revealed a shocking family secret (which won't be revealed here), Anzu fled to America and soon discovered her fame in Japan did not follow her here. Taking odd jobs to pay the rent, such as a server at the trendy Japanese restaurant Yamashiro in Hollywood, Anzu shared stories of her difficult pursuit of an acting career, finally landing a leading role opposite Viggo Mortensen in the film American Yakuza. But this is a time when there are not many roles for Asian-American actresses, let alone leading roles. Finally she took a job as personal assistant to martial arts film star Steven Seagal, exiting after a year of hard work while staying quiet about his off-screen behavior, after he attempted to take liberties with her.
Anzu shared how she then became a masseuse to the stars, literally rubbing the shoulders of Hollywood's biggest and brightest movers and shakers, as well as singing vocal tracks for the film scores of composer Hans Zimmer. Upon appearing in a television episode with Brad Garrett, he encouraged her to try her hand at stand-up comedy.
But her desire to be an actress kept Anzu studying her craft, hoping to land the movie role of her dreams. As she continued to study, her instructor, taking note of her exotic good looks, suggested she write a scene portraying Yoko Ono. First scoffing at the idea, Ono soon became a source of inspiration for Anzu as a multidisciplinary Asian artist who lived for years in New York as one of the most hated women in the world, but persevered to become an internationally acclaimed artist and humanitarian.
DEAR YOKO is an extraordinary personal story of Anzu's growth as a woman and an artist, in an odyssey that spans two continents and how she found in Yoko Ono an example of an extraordinary Asian woman of accomplishment who always lived her life authentically, even to this day. Her totally absorbing tale had me hooked from start to finish, often feeling as if I really was watching Yoko Ono onstage as well as many of the other characters shared with us. The most important lesson which spoke directly to me during her emotionally-charged performance was the need to stop seeking approval from those who will never really accept you as you see yourself or in following your dreams rather than being what others expect of you. And now I plan to take that lesson out into my own life. Thank you, Anzu, for reaching me in such an important way Yoko inspires you.
DEAR YOKO will next be presented during the Binge Fringe Festival at the Santa Monica Playhouse on Saturday, November 9 at 1pm. This is a FREE SHOW but reservations are required, and can be made by calling 310-394-9779 ext 1 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org Please note your booking email should include: show title, full name of ticket holder, contact phone number of ticket holder, and how many seats to reserve as several shows are part of the festival. I guarantee Anzu Lawson will speak as directly to you about finding yourself and following your dreams as she did to me, so reserve your seats soon before the performance sells out.