Wakako Yamauchi, Japanese-American playwright, dies at 93
Wakako Yamauchi, whose plays exploring the Japanese-American experience drew on her own life of relocation, rootlessness, assimilation, and internment during World War II, died Aug. 16 at her home in Gardena, Calif. She was 93.
The death was confirmed by her granddaughter, Alyctra Matsushita.
Ms. Yamauchi’s plays were produced frequently, especially by the Asian-American troupe East West Players in Los Angeles. She was best known for “And the Soul Shall Dance,” a work she adapted from her own short story. East West Players staged it in 1977, a time when Asian-American voices, especially female ones, were rarely heard in the theater. The next year a film version was made for PBS.
The play tells the story of two Japanese immigrant families in California working as itinerant farmers during the Depression, one still rooted in the old culture, one trying to assimilate. Ms. Yamauchi herself was nisei — a first-generation child of Japanese immigrants — and grew up in a farming family. Her experiences, and the ones she would have later, are the subtle heart of the work.
The play’s strength is that Ms. Yamauchi “writes from neither self-pity nor ideology,” John Corry wrote in reviewing the New York premiere by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater in 1979.
Wakako Nakamura was born on Oct. 25, 1924, in Westmorland, Calif.
Her parents, Yasaku and Hama Machida Nakamura, had emigrated from Japan. In the United States, they were itinerant farmers, since California law prevented certain immigrants from owning land. The family moved frequently, house and all, as one plot of land needed replenishment and was left to lie fallow.
Ms. Yamauchi was in high school during World War II, and she and other Japanese-American students soon stopped going to class because of the hostility they faced.
“Our history teacher started talking about ‘Japs,’ and it was very uncomfortable,” she said. “I think by the beginning of January, we were all out. And then I think in February, we were processed” — processed, that is, for internment in camps.
The family ended up at the Poston camp in Arizona, where Ms. Yamauchi drew cartoons for the camp newspaper.
After the end of the war and her family’s release, she married Chester Yamauchi in 1948 and settled in Los Angeles. For a time she worked for The Los Angeles Tribune, a newspaper aimed at the city’s black population, and she also wrote the occasional short story for a Japanese-American newspaper, Rafu Shimpo.
Her big break came in 1974, when “And the Soul Shall Dance,” a short story she had written in the late 1940s, was included in “Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers.” Among those who read it was the actor and director Mako, an East West Players founder, who told her it would make a good play.
Mako, who used the one name professionally, directed the play’s premiere. In 1980, after a protest over the lack of opportunities for Asian-American actors and playwrights at the Public Theater in New York, Joseph Papp, that theater’s founder, booked another play by Ms. Yamauchi, “The Music Lessons,” and had Mako direct it.
Ms. Yamauchi’s other plays included “The Memento,” which was staged in 1987 by Yale Repertory Theater after opening the 20th anniversary season of East West Players the year before.
Ms. Yamauchi’s marriage ended in divorce in the 1970s. In addition to her granddaughter, she is survived by a sister and a grandson.
In 1994, Ms. Yamauchi published “Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays and Memoir,” an anthology.