In Greater Clements, Ken Narasaki plays Billy, a Japanese-American who comes to a small Idaho town to rekindle his relationship with Maggie, whom he had dated in high school. Recently, I asked Narasaki how strongly he related to his role the first time he read the script.
“Billy jumped out at me in a way that few characters ever have,” Narasaki replied. “I felt that I knew this guy. I love Billy. I understand the way he thinks – for example, the way he represses thoughts and emotions about internment camps for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.”
So Narasaki is like Billy? “No,” the actor replied. “He’s the opposite of me. He’s more like my dad and his generation.” Narasaki elaborated: “There’s a great coincidence in my doing Greater Clements. My mom and her entire family were interned in Minidoka, the Idaho internment camp talked about in the play. I mentioned this during my audition. My dad’s family were interned at the Topaz camp, in Utah. They came from the Central Valley, in California.”
Narasaki said that like many Japanese-Americans of his generation he learned about the prisons in school. “There was just one paragraph, in our seventh-grade-history book. It referred to the camps as ‘an unfortunate chapter in our nation’s past.’ I went home and asked my parents, but they didn’t want to talk about it. For a lot of them it was a pain they wanted to bury for fear of that pain coming back.”
Such repression, Narasaki said, resembled that of returning World War Two veterans. “My dad fought in the war, in Italy. He never talked about that experience until seeing Saving Private Ryan, which he thought was the closest any movie had gotten to the brutality of battle.”
How did Narasaki use his family history to create the character of Billy? “There’s a lot in the play I can easily draw from in my own life. Billy doesn’t want to talk about his family’s painful history. That repression of emotion was really familiar to me.”
As for Billy’s experience of being part of a minority in a small American town, Narasaki said, “I had to use more imagination. But I do have knowledge of what it’s like to be ‘the only one.’ I’ve been in many situations, in the theater, where I’m the only Asian-American in the cast. And there is a feeling of: I can sort of fit into this club and sort of not. That helped me imagine the otherness of Billy.”
Narasaki grew up in Renton, Washington, outside Seattle. “Renton was then a working-class town,” Narasaki said. “As a child, I had a lot of rocks thrown at me and was called many names. I was really familiar with overt racism.”
Narasaki joined the drama club in seventh grade, took a respite from it to run cross country, and returned to the stage as a high-school sophomore. “I loved theater,” he said. “It was a chance to show off. I was hyper-active.”
On the way back from a high-school theater camp, Narasaki had a formative experience. “I was talking to one of the instructors, who at the time was the chief critic for the Seattle Weekly. He asked if I had ever considered acting as a career. I answered: ‘No. Because what am I gonna do? Play Second Refugee on an episode of “MASH”?’ The teacher replied: ‘If everyone felt that way then nothing would ever change.’ That was a bullet to the brain. I thought: I’ve gotta do this.”
Narasaki attended Cornish College of the Arts, in Seattle, and, after doing a summer training program at the American Conservatory Theater, in San Francisco, moved to the Bay Area. He spent the 1980s passionately involved with the Asian American Theatre Company, in San Francisco, as an actor and, later, as literary manager. “That was a great time,” he remembered. “I was with people my age and we all felt we were creating a canon of work that didn’t exist yet.” Seeking good public schooling for his daughter and new career opportunities, in the early 1990s Narasaki and his family moved to southern California., which has remained home base.
Narasaki is grateful to be making his New York acting debut at Lincoln Center Theater. “It’s a dream come true.” This isn’t his first time as a professional theater person in Gotham, however. He is a writer, and his play No-No Boy has been done at Pan Asian Rep. Narasaki has written nine full-length plays, and five of them have been produced.
Will he return to playwriting when Greater Clements ends?” “It’s possible,” he said. “But acting is my first love. Writing is another way to keep the artist in me alive.”
Given Narasaki’s work as a dramatist, how has he related to the text of Greater Clements? He replied: “It’s been a great exercise to play Sam’s rhythms. There’s a precision to his writing that you might not guess because it feels so natural. There’s a code of punctuation in his scripts that you must follow. Sam and our director, Davis McCallum, planned things out in a fine, specific way. You grow within those boundaries.”
As for the ensemble, Narasaki said that they all keep it fresh each performance. He likens the cast to jazz musicians, especially Judith Ivey, who plays Maggie. “She’s a little different every night. There’s a long scene where Judy and Nina Hellman, who plays Olivia, have an argument. I have a ringside seat, and even though it’s a tense exchange it’s wonderful to observe them.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com