Lane Nishikawa – who makes his feature film directorial debut with “ONLY THE BRAVE” – has been called “one of Asian America’s most compelling voices” by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki – who noted that “his work is funny, angry, and deeply moving.”
Upon seeing one of Nishikawa’s one-man shows, the esteemed Los Angeles Times theater critic Sylvie Drake declared that “his core is molten lead, his language all friskiness and abrasion…Nishikawa is a poet first, an actor second, a presence always…Nishikawa is at his best when the language takes over and we’re exposed to a tumbling profusion of culture images racing by…”
His acclaimed body of work over two decades has continually broken new ground in examining the human condition of the Asian American experience.
Through his trilogy of critically-acclaimed one-man shows, Nishikawa tackled such sensitive issues as the plight of Asian American writers who can’t get published (“Life in the Fast Lane”), the despair of Asian American actors who are excluded from mainstream roles (“I’m on a Mission from Buddha”), and how the media has stereotyped those who did succeed (“Mifune and Me”).
His celebrated play, “The Gate of Heaven,” portrayed the unlikely lifelong friendship between a Japanese American soldier and the Jewish survivor he liberates from the Dachau concentration camp – and the racial injustices both have endured.
Another, “Gila River,” followed the dreams of a young Nisei baseball star from his internment during World War II to becoming an American soldier and finding himself face to face with his brother who is fighting for Japan.
No less powerful, his trilogy of films – “Forgotten Valor,” “When We Were Warriors” and “Only the Brave” – celebrated the unparalleled courage of the Nisei soldiers who voluntarily fought in World War II while many of their families were imprisoned in internment camps back in the States.
“I write pieces that give an inside view, a sense of the truth about the Asian-American experience – what it’s like to breathe in my skin. I write for change, so that one day I might walk down any American street and not have someone look at me and try to guess which country I’m from,” Nishikawa says of his unique vision which continues to have a profound influence on younger generations in particular through his tours of college campuses and theaters throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe, as well the PBS broadcast of “I’m on a Mission from Buddha” in the early 1990s.
The son of an accountant and beauty salon owner, Nishikawa was born in Wahiawa on Oahu, then raised in San Francisco from the time he was three. He returned to Hawaii with his sister every summer to live with his grandmother until her death.
Like other children of Nisei (2nd generation Japanese-Americans), Nishikawa grew up hearing stories about how his relatives endured World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Among them was the imprisonment of his aunts, uncles and cousins in an internment camp in Manzanar, as well as the deployment of his uncles to Europe to fight the Nazi’s as members of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team. All of it would have a profound influence on his artistic vision as an adult.
Nishikawa worked his way through San Francisco State University in a series of odd jobs – from clerking in a Japanese electronics store to sorting boxes at UPS to handling baggage at the airport. “Most of them were either swing shift or graveyard so I could do theater,” he recalls.
He created his own degree – a B.A. in Asian American Theater – in interdisciplinary studies by combining creative writing, ethnic studies and theater. It was a subject that fascinated him, because “if you look at Asian-American history in terms of literature, there were a lot of novelists, short story writers and poets – but not a lot of playwrights back then.”
While still a student, Nishikawa had already begun writing when he was introduced to the Bay Area’s Asian American Theater Workshop (later known as the Asian American Theater Company).
“I would go see the plays they were doing. What amazed me were these stories about Asian American lives, and that was something I felt I wanted to pursue and look into – because it was exactly what I was writing about in terms of free verse, spoken word poetry, street poetry (whatever you want to call it), it was very similar. But here you had a real structure to it and all the characters were Asian, and it really affected me. And that’s when I started to try to understand the world of theater,” he says.
About the same time, he discovered his passion for the stage through the annual street fair in San Francisco’s Japantown, where he performed his own poetry, free verse, to an audience of more than 10,000. On another occasion, he performed for 3000 prisoners at San Quentin.
“My poetry – they call it ‘spoken word’ right now – half of it was character-driven. My poetry became much more comedic. And then characters would start forming,” he explains of the genesis of his one-man monologues.
In 1985, Nishikawa wrote and performed the first of his now-renowned one-man shows – “Life in the Fast Lane” – about the personal turmoil of being an Asian-American writer who can’t get published.
“The show was set up as if I was being interviewed in a television studio. I was in a chair, answering questions, but the audience never heard the questions, just my answers, the personal struggle of a Japanese-American writer,” he explains.
“Between the answers, performance pieces unfolded in vignettes: remembering my grandmother back in Wahiawa, growing up in a Japanese and black neighborhood in San Francisco, hearing a bigot’s view on his daughter’s marrying an Asian guy, taking an inside look at an American internment camp, going to Hiroshima for the first time, seeing the ghost of my uncle, a 442nd soldier.”
Produced by Eric Hayashi (now a producer on “Only The Brave”), the show toured on and off for four years throughout North America, including a six-week engagement at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles.
Beginning in 1986, Nishikawa served as the Artistic Director for the Asian American Theater Company for ten seasons – where he was responsible for selecting and staging six productions a year from submissions across the country, along with an intensive reading series that presented six plays in six weekends. In collaboration with Hayashi as the executive director, he managed to accomplish the near-impossible for community-based theater groups: move AACT into the ranks of an equity house, so their performers could be paid and regarded as professionals.
In 1991, he debuted his biting comedy, “I’m On A Mission From Buddha,” about the plight of Asian American actors trying to break into mainstream roles in a country where “American” means “white.”
The explosive 90-minute show featured 18 vignettes in which he played a repertoire of characters – ranging from a stand-up comic and Japanese rap artist to a sushi-fearing redneck and 442nd Nisei veteran of World War II. He also wove in candid, autobiographical monologues about the humorous ironies of growing up Japanese in America and the manic frustrations of being an actor with an Asian face.
Where did the material come from? “In all the plays I had done, I was in leads or good supporting roles. And then you go down to L.A. and audition, and there would be like two lines: ‘Let me take your blood pressure.’ ‘That bullet came pretty close to an artery.’ Yes, the industry has definitely changed in the last five to ten years. Still, when you look at it, it’s a very minute number of roles that are offered that aren’t martial arts related.”
Following a major national tour, also produced by Hayashi, “I’m On A Mission From Buddha” played at the Los Angeles Theater Center for almost two months, then was adapted for television and premiered on PBS’ KQED-TV in San Francisco, on January 25, 1991, and was subsequently broadcast on public stations throughout the country.
One of his most moving pieces, “The Gate of Heaven,” was unveiled in 1996. Co-written and performed with Victor Talmadge, the powerful story of an extraordinary friendship between a Japanese American soldier and the Jewish survivor he rescues from Dachau was inspired by his uncle’s experience as a member of the Army unit that liberated the notorious concentration camp during World War II.
“With nothing but a bare stage, two actors and a few props, ‘The Gate of Heaven’ provides a powerful examination of a 50-year bond between two men…All by themselves Talmadge and Nishikawa carry the bulk of the highly emotional play, gracefully balancing humor and pathos and delivering unforgettable performances,” wrote Mark Nishimura in the Hokubei Mainichi. As well, the Los Angeles Times praised the uplifting story of friendship and honor as “poignantly alive.”
“The Gate of Heaven” – which later became the basis of Nishikawa’s first film – ran for five weeks at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego as part of its 1997 regular season, then moved to the Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. for another full run. Among its other notable engagements, it was presented at the U.S. Holocaust Museum on the 50th commemoration of the Holocaust.
In 1997, Nishikawa spent a year as the Co-Artistic Director of the Eureka Theater, which was known for mounting socially-conscious works, and later served as a Resident Director at the prestigious San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, where his interpretation of one of the classics was mounted with a multi-ethnic cast.
Nishikawa’s third one-man play, “Mifune and Me,” looked at 150 years of Asian-American images, both positive and negative.
“Like ‘The Gate of Heaven’ and “I’m on a Mission From Buddha,’ ‘Mifune’ transforms real-life stories into dramatic vignettes that explore the human condition through humor, insight and empathy,” wrote Rita Goldman in Centerpiece: The Maui Arts & Cultural Center Magazine.
For its engagement on the Stanford University campus, the Stanford Lively Arts noted that “as a child growing up in Hawaii, Nishikawa idolized movie-star Toshiro Mifune, the action hero who fought thousands on screen, always emerging unscathed. As a playwright, actor and all-around irrepressible wit, Nishikawa has emerged as a hero to many, exposing the absurdity and hilarity beneath stereotypes that shadow Asian American lives. In this compelling series of vignettes, he pokes fun at the media’s portrayal of Asian Americans, as he has experienced it in his quest to conquer Hollywood and his own identity. His many characters expose the borders that challenge our collective understanding of ourselves and the communities we thrive in.”
Of the piece, Nishikawa explains: “As with all my plays, I look at my material from three points of view: the personal, the historical and the social, which is sometimes a bit political. As much as I like to point a finger at any given situation, I’ll point that finger at myself, too. I love humor. If you can’t laugh at yourself, how can you expect to be taken seriously?”
In 1999, he adapted “The Gate of Heaven” into his first film, “When We Were Warriors” – made possible through a grant from the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund.
For the 35-minute short feature, Nishikawa and Victor Talmadge reprised their roles in the drama about two men facing unfathomable obstacles and persevering to find humanism in their lives and the world that surrounds them. The film opens with Sam Yamamoto, a Nisei, meeting Leon Ehrlich, a Jewish man whom Sam has liberated from the Dachau concentration camp in Germany during World War II – then follows the evolution of their incredible bond as they each survive personal and social injustices, along with psychological wounds.
His second film, “Forgotten Valor,” won the Best Short Feature in the Hawaiian International Film Festival in 2001.
“This is a highly professional, highly polished endeavor,” wrote Sacramento Bee film critic Joe Baltake. “…There are moments in ‘Forgotten Valor’ that are reminiscent of William Wyler’s ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946). Nishikawa gets at the undercurrent of discontent that prevents men like George from achieving any degree of happiness….The film is extremely relevant, even though it’s been inspired by events that happened more than five decades ago. That war is still very much alive inside the minds and hearts of some of its survivors.”
In 2001, he returned to playwriting with “Gila River,” which followed the dreams of a young Nisei baseball star from his internment during WWII to fighting in the Pacific for America and coming face to face with his brother who is fighting for Japan.
A year later, when the National Endowment of the Arts funded an official White House Millennium Project pairing 50 nationally-recognized artists (from actors to filmmakers) with hosting arts organizations in each of the 50 states, the Maui Arts & Cultural Center (representing Hawaii) selected Nishikawa as their recipient The three-month residency that followed resulted in his play, “When We Were One,” inspired by his grandparents’ unlikely love story and the history of Maui during the first 25 years of the 20th Century.
In 2002, he received his second California Civil Liberties Public Education Program Grant, allowing him to develop his first feature length motion picture, “Only the Brave.”
In 2004, Nishikawa spent a ten-week residency helping 28 prisoners at the Maui County Correctional Center write and perform their play, which he directed at the Maui Arts & Culture Center. It was voted Best Play of the Year by the Maui News.
Over the years, he has taught creative writing and acting at Stanford University, San Francisco State University and Maui Community College, among other schools.
His unique style of free verse – which became the basis of his one-man plays – have been published in Time to Greez: Incantations from the Third World, Ayumi: The Japanese American Anthology, Bridge Magazine, and The 20th Century Edition of Gidra.
In recognition of the extraordinary impact of his work, Nishikawa has received numerous honors over the years – including a Solo Performance Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National J.A.C.L. Ruby Yoshino Schaar Playwright Award, the Henry and Chiyo Kuwahara Award from the J.A.C.L., the Japanese American Community Cultural Center Humanitarian Award, the George Nakashima Peace Award, special recognition from The Harvard Foundation, and the first Asian-American to receive a UC Regents Fellowship from the University of California – Santa Barbara.