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Paul Kikuchi's IXNAY

A new generation of Japanese America is rising and playwright Paul Kikuchi represents a different breed of Asian American theatre practitioners ready to tackle head on the next era of issues. But if you’re expecting a gut-wrenching, emotionally heavy discourse on racial politics, think again.

In a climate where even the mere mention of “race” can cause bristling and defensive walls to sprout, Kikuchi’s new play IXNAY offers a hilarious satire of Asia America that disarms even the most weary.

A comedy, IXNAY tells the story of Raymond Kobayashi, an under-achieving third generation Sansei Japanese American who rejects being reincarnated as a Yonsei. Much to the chagrin of eccentric station director Tadashi Ozaki, who forces through more reincarnations of Japanese Americans than the natural order allows, Raymond rudely refuses to suck it up and “shikata ga nai.” Balking at protocol, he proceeds to cause major havoc when he ixnays (pig latin for ‘nix’) his next life. Hilarity ensues.

“Raymond is me on stage,” said the Sansei. At age 49, Kikuchi is an atypical playwright. IXNAY is his first stage play and his first piece about Asian Americans. Even more atypical is his career choice: to be a stay at home dad.

When his first daughter was born over 19 years ago, Kikuchi was faced with a decision that a more traditional Asian family would probably never even think of discussing: who would stay at home to bring up the kids? In weighing their options, Kikuchi and his wife, a third generation Chinese American, decided that he would take on the role of primary caretaker while his wife continued with her job as the primary income provider.

“It was a strange dynamic, the underachiever and the switch of family roles. A lot of my own experience in my life was put into Raymond,” contemplated Kikuchi, as he pointed out his unusual decision to forsake a typical model minority white collar job to raise the kids.

“I did want to be a screenwriter,” reminisced Kikuchi, whose writing career began with a screenwriting class at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Shortly after graduation, Kikuchi enjoyed regular work and the Los Angeles county native remembered ‘80s police TV drama Hill Street Blues as one of his more memorable shows that he wrote for. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled before he had a chance to see any of his scripts produced.

“It was a running joke that every time I try to write for a show, they’ll cancel it the next year,” remarked Kikuchi lightheartedly. Faced with lukewarm success, Kikuchi decided that raising the kids would be a better investment and gave up his dream to be a full time screenwriter.

Nevertheless, Kikuchi’s interest in pop culture has uniquely colored his foray into play-writing. IXNAY has all the elements of a TV sit-com—it’s wry, sarcastically funny, irreverent and highly entertaining.

“If you asked me three years ago before I started on IXNAY, I would have probably said I didn’t have an Asian American story to write,” admitted Kikuchi. The spark of inspiration for IXNAY came from a conversation between his then 16-year-old daughter and her “Japanophile” high school friend who wanted to be reincarnated as a Japanese American.

And out of his musings sprouted the colorful supporting characters in IXNAY. Waiting with Raymond at the Reincarnation Station are a motley crew of Asian American stereotypes, including a Chinese over-achieving dentist, a fast-talking pinoy punk, a slap-happy Korean grandma, and a wanna-be-Japanese Caucasian. Seriously, no stereotype is spared from Kikuchi’s comedic scrutiny.

Incubated for almost three years in East West Player’s David Henry Hwang Writing Institute, Artistic Director Tim Dang chose to stage IXNAY because it was freshly comedic.

“Mainstream plays about Asian American identity tend to be serious. Comedic catharsis isn’t commonly explored, but it’s actually a really compelling genre,” observed Tim Dang, Artistic Director of East West Players. He also noted that common among plays about Asian American identity is a highly involved psychological grappling or pinning for a better ethnic America.

“But it doesn’t have to be representative of all Asian Americans and IXNAY is unique in reflecting Paul’s personal journey as he comes to terms with being a minority,” continued Dang.

“I just want to get through the day and enjoy life, and not think about if I’m Japanese, or American or whatever. I don’t want to be pinned down. I’ve never followed a path that I was meant to take,” said Kikuchi as a matter-of-fact.

While the conventional ethnic identity search is overtly absent in IXNAY, by putting Asian American prototypes and their relationships in the comedic spotlight, the audience gets a very clear picture of an Asian America. This makes the topic more accessible and relatable. It is arguably an easier platform to begin the discussion with the uninitiated on Asian America than say a political rally or a critical studies discourse.

Kikuchi, however, is unapologetically unconcerned with that as a playwright. He just wants to continue developing and improving his craft.

“Do what makes you happy, as long as you’re happy. Don’t do it for what’s expected, or anything else. Just do whatever gives you a smile everyday,” concluded Kikuchi.

Born and raised in Pasadena, California, playwright/screenwriter/substitute teacher Paul Kikuchi is a third generation Japanese American. He attended UC Santa Barbara where he barely received a BA in English literature. Paul has written six screenplays which have landed him three different agents, two options and a cup of Winchell's coffee. In 2006, Paul enrolled in East West Players' David Henry Hwang Introduction to Playwriting Workshop and began writing IXNAY. In 2007, he continued shaping the play in the DHHWI Rewriting class. IXNAY is his first stageplay. Paul lives with his wife, two daughters and dog in their cluttered house in South Pasadena.

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IXNAY opens at East West Players in Los Angeles, California for Previews between February 12 - 15, 2009. Opening Night is Wednesday, February 18. The Performance runs through March 15, 2009. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the East West Players Web site at www.EastWestPlayers.org, or call 213.625.7000.

© 2009 Shou Chen Tan

east west players identity Paul Kikuchi play playwright race theatre