Playwright Min Kahng's 'THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL MANGA' is a World Premiere Masterpiece
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley opened its 48th season this past weekend with the much-anticipated world premiere of The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, and it is spectacular. Hope and friendship are kindled in the hearts of four young Japanese men who leave their homeland behind in search of opportunity in San Francisco at the rough-and-tumble turn of the twentieth-century. Their attempts to pursue their own versions of the American dream are comically captured by playwright Min Kahng who also wrote the brilliant ragtime/vaudeville flavored score as well as the delightful and often poignant lyrics. With notable performances by a wonderful cast and dynamic direction by Leslie Martinson, this is one show that's got legs - which will be step-kicking their way all the way to Broadway if I'm not mistaken.
It all began with a book - a comic book, to be more precise. Five years ago, while Kahng was browsing through a secondhand bookstore, he happened upon the Frederik L. Schodt translation of a 1931 comic book by Japanese artist Henry Kiyama called, "The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924." There was no way for Kahng to know then that he was holding his future in his hands.
As he thumbed through the pages, he was astonished to find that Kiyama was part of the first generation of Japanese in America and that he'd lived and worked in San Francisco as an artist. Kahng was hooked. Soon enough the playwright/composer was bringing his glimmer of an idea for a musical based on Kiyama's comic book to the TheatreWorks Writers Retreat, where he found ample support for the project. After being a runaway hit at last year's New Works Festival, "The Four Immigrants, was chosen to open the 2017 season.
This musical is masterful on so many levels. As the title implies, the show focuses on the lives of four immigrant friends. They're males but the cast is rounded out by four women (Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catharine Gloria, Lindsay Hirata) who play the rest of the parts including judges, firemen, a gambling house owner, wealthy society women and even a vigilante who is dead set on getting rid of "their kind." In this respect, there's a "Hamilton-esque" feel to the show in that the audience has the chance to see ethnically diverse actors (in this case, Asian women) playing parts that only whites would have held in the time period enacted. This artistic decision is a sobering reminder of the limitations America has imposed on both women and people of color. Of course, it's true that white immigrants also faced discrimination, but they were quickly assimilated into the broader white American culture, while women and people of color still face legal discrimination to this day. And certainly, immigrants still face almost impossible odds when they seek to make America home.
Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce gives us a set that makes strong use of Henry Kiyama's original artwork in the form of life-sized comic strip frames (Projections Designer Katherine Freer). The panels also slide in and out creating rooms and doorways for the actors to come through or get kicked out of. The characters seemed always to be trying to find doors that will stay open to them in America, the place they fervently wished to call home.
Henry (James Seol) has come to America to become an artist while Frank (Phil Wong) secretly wants to own a footwear establishment. Fred (Sean Fenton) yearns for a plot of land to farm, while Charlie (Hansel Tan) wants desperately to shed the backward ways of old Japan and become an American as fast as he can. His optimism buoys the boys, even when they point out the prejudice they're likely to face. "The Americans will see we can be just like them," he tells his friends. Unfortunately, the reality turns out to be quite different - at least for most of them.
Through song and simply exuberant dance numbers (choreographer Dottie Lester-White), the stories of the immigrants unfold as they survive the 1906 earthquake and live it up during the 1915 World's Fair. Interestingly, it's during a lighter scene at the World's Fair that Henry sings so poignantly about art. Seol's beautiful voice wraps around the lyrics as he gazes at a statue and wonders if his own quirky comic book art will ever amount to anything "Remarkable." "If I took what's inside me and laid it bare / Would they simply deride me or even care?/ Would they call me remarkable? / Impossible to know if my wager was worth the dare / To know if I've something remarkable to share with all the world.
Little did the real Henry know that some 86 years after he published his manga, his art would be discovered by a playwright who would turn his comic strips into something so remarkable.
THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL MANGA
Written by Min Kahng, based on a graphic novel by Henry Kiyama
Music and Lyrics by Min Kahng
Directed by Leslie Martinson
This World Premiere is presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, now through August 6
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne