James Yaegashi, who plays Father in The Oldest Boy, grew up in Japan. “That fact was helpful when it came time to begin work on the play,” Yaegashi told me the other day, backstage, between a matinee and evening performance. “I shared some of the world view of the Tibetan characters in the play, because of my upbringing.”
Lest you think that Yaegashi is espousing a generic, pan-Asian perspective, he is quick to point out some of the differences between Japanese and Tibetan behavior. “The idea of eye contact is so important to Tibetans,” he said. “In Japan, when we bow we don’t make direct eye contact. That would be too forward. In Tibet, it’s the opposite: not to have eye contact is disrespectful.”
Doing the play has allowed Yaegashi to take a clear look at another Tibetan custom: arranged marriage. “The play presents that as part of a larger picture of marriage,” he said. “Even though my character doesn’t go through with an arranged marriage, I’m still behaving based out of a framework of family first.”
As for Yaegashi’s own family life, he has two children and is the son of a Japanese father and American mother. “I grew up bilingual,” he said. His linguistic skills have been useful. His professional life is a balance between acting and doing translation. He has, for instance, rendered several contemporary Japanese plays into English. He added, good-naturedly, “I don’t act in musicals, so the translation work has been essential.”
Yaegashi has appeared in such Broadway plays as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Take Me Out. The latter, about professional baseball, tapped into Yaegashi’s love of sports. “I was a jock growing up – judo, wrestling. I also loved language – I was a literature major as an undergraduate.” (At Wheaton College, in Illinois.) Acting, Yaegashi said, has allowed him to combine his interest in narrative with his inclination toward physical activity.
If acting for Yaegashi involves a kind of combining, the work on The Oldest Boy sometimes requires a taking-apart. “The more performances I do,” he said, “the more I learn about how my character feels pulled between his sense of duty and his personal desire.” Conveying that conflict during the run, he explained, has been a process. “I started out understanding it in my head, and I’ve gradually learned to feel it in my heart and in my gut.”
Not long ago, acting from the heart took Yaegashi to another place. Shortly after the devastating March, 2011 earthquake in Japan, Yaegashi, whose family is from a nearby area, wondered how to respond. “Being a theater actor,” he said, “I didn’t have much money to donate, and I wracked my brain trying to figure out what I could do.” He called on friends in the New York theater to organize a response. Six months later, a friendly consortium of over a dozen organizations came together to lead a remarkable nationwide event. And by March 11, 2012, the first anniversary of the quake, close to 100 organizations from around the world had participated in Shinsai: Theaters for Japan. (Shinsai means “great quake” in Japanese.)
“I feel the success of the project,” Yaegashi said, “is related to a very basic inclination in those of us who are in theater -- we want to tell stories that matter to people.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.