Wakako Yamauchi - Japanese American Soul

Wakako Yamauchi, who died in August 2018 at age 93, was a Nisei playwright whose most celebrated work, And the Soul Shall Dance, has become a staple of the Japanese American theatrical repertoire. Born in California’s Imperial Valley on the brink of the Great Depression, Yamauchi spent the brunt of the war years incarcerated with her family in the Poston, Arizona, internment camp. Mentored there by the writer Hisaye Yamamoto, Yamauchi married after the war, gave birth to a daughter and produced a steady stream of short stories that, beyond the Japanese American community, remained well below the radar. It wasn’t until she was in her 50s that the premiere of Soul at East West Players in Los Angeles launched her career as an internationally recognized playwright.

This series, written by a longtime friend, explores her fascinating life—as a child of Japanese immigrants, a witness to an infamous episode in history, and as a complex and insightful author and human being.

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Part 6: The Final Years

Yamauchi for the most part left playwriting behind her in the last decades of her life, devoting most of her efforts to writing a series of semi-autobiographical short stories, including “McNisei,” about a group of aging Japanese Americans who meet at the local McDonald’s to have coffee and share gossip, jokes and painful truths.

She wrote the script for a documentary, Nurtured by Love, about Dr. Shinnichi Suzuki, inventor of the Suzuki method of music instruction. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley honored her with a “Wakako Yamauchi Day” proclamation from the city, and she and my mother traveled to ...

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Part 5: A Personal Portrait

What may be most notable about The Memento is what it reveals of the author herself, about her own emotional and spiritual life. It is here where I wish to step away from the writer and talk about the person whom I grew to know so well over many decades. I can easily infer that she, too, felt spurned by a man she had loved. Not only did her husband Chester divorce her after their nearly 30 years together, but he soon remarried, this time to a much younger Japanese woman, with whom he had two more children. Their conflicts ...

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Part 4: Career as a Playwright

Yamauchi returned to the world of the Depression-era desert in The Music Lessons, which premiered in 1980 at the New York Public Theater. The play, based like Soul on one of Yamauchi’s short stories (In Heaven and Earth), is a Tennessee Williams-esque tale of an itinerant laborer in his 30s named Kaoru who comes to a widow’s farm looking for work. The widow, Mrs. Sakata, has three children: two sons and a daughter, Aki. The rootless Kaoru begins giving violin lessons to the 15-year-old Aki, who, innocent and isolated, falls in love with him. One night, when Mrs ...

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Part 3: And the Soul Shall Dance

In 1974, Yamauchi’s life was about to change again as four Asian American writers began putting together an anthology of Asian American prose and drama under the title Aiiieeeee!—a reference to the cries of suicidal Asians in WWII U.S. propaganda films. At Si’s behest, Yamauchi submitted some of her stories, and the editors—Frank Chin, Jeffrey Chan, Lawson Inada and Shawn Wong—chose to include one entitled And the Soul Shall Dance.

Soon after the publication of Aiiieeeee!, Yamauchi’s own domestic situation fell apart. Her husband of 27 years asked her for a divorce; it ...

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Part 2: Postwar Years

Yamauchi’s elder sister Yukiko described to me the announcement that blared over the loudspeakers throughout the camp on August 14, 1945: “The war is over. You can all go home now.” She recalled thinking at that moment: '…but we have no home.’1

With the camp closing down and their patriarch cremated, the Nakamuras caught one of the last trains out of Poston, which left from nearby Parker, Arizona, with Yamauchi’s mother clutching a container with her husband’s (she claimed) still-warm ashes. The family went to San Diego where they lived for a time in a government-owned ...

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