APA Spotlight: Marilyn Tokuda, Co-Chair, Asian Pacific American Media Coalition

APA Spotlight is a weekly interview of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) community leaders. It is a spotlight on individuals who have dedicated their careers to issues surrounding the APIA community with the goal of bringing much deserved recognition to their work and cause(s).

Marilyn Tokuda has been working for East West Players (EWP) since 2002 and is the organizations first Arts Education Director. She was one of the founding members of COLD TOFU, the first Asian American comedy group and served as its Artistic Director for six years. Marilyn also works with Oku & Associates in diversity training with Fortune 500 companies as well as representing East West Players on the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) which meets with television networks on an ongoing basis to evaluate the visibility and portrayals of Asian Pacific Americans in the media. Recently, she and Guy Aoki became co-chairs of APAMC.

As an actress, Marilyn has performed in numerous productions at EWP including: Follies, The Theory of Everything, Hanako, Woman From the Other Side of the World, and she played the title role of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. She has also appeared in numerous television shows including: Frasier, Friends, and Seinfeld. Films include: Farewell to the King, Strawberry Fields and Xanadu. Marilyn can be seen interviewed in the recently released special anniversary edition of Xanadu, also in the re-release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s which dedicates a section to discussing Mickey Rooney’s stereotypical depiction of Mr. Yuneyoshi, Audrey Hepburn’s upstairs frustrated Japanese neighbor. Directorial credits include several benefit performances including The Aloha Concert, Hero, Very Funny People, the 37th-45th EWP Visionary Awards, and EWP’s holiday show The Nisei Widows Club Holiday On Thin Ice. Other shows include an evening for the Democratic Convention and scenes for ABC Television Diversity Showcases which she will be directing for again this Fall.

What is the mission statement of your life?

I am a strong believer in what goes around comes around therefore treat people with respect and the way you want to be treated. Have compassion and tolerance for people because you never really know what their life experience is. Also if you want something in life, it’s not enough to dream about it, go after it with a vengeance! If you don’t try, you’ll never know!

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

When I was growing up in Seattle, my mother would cut out articles about an Asian American theatre that had been created in Los Angeles. East West Players had a profound impact on me even back then. No one had ever addressed our needs as Asian American actors. Although I had never heard it articulated, I was always aware of the fact that Asian Americans were sorely underrepresented in the media; we were virtually invisible.

While attending the University of Washington I wrote a letter to Mako who had just been nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the Sand Pebbles. I told him we had a small group of Asian American actors in Seattle and asked if he would be willing to conduct a workshop. He immediately said “yes”. Although I had always been interested in Asian American theatre, he cemented my passion and commitment to it.

Mako was a firm believer in creating our own canon of work – work written for, about and by us. At that time, EWP produced traditional American work as well but Asian American work was an integral part of the season.

After I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles and immediately visited East West Players. I took classes, understudied and eventually was cast in plays. I was in and out of the theatre working but I always considered EWP my home. My role as actor transitioned into another role in 1999 when Peter Corpus and Annette Lee casually approached me on the steps of East West Players and asked me what I was doing for the summer. When I replied, “I don’t have any plans…”, Peter asked if I would like to coordinate EWP’s 6-week summer intensive conservatory program. I consented and have been here ever since. I’ve been told that what seemed like a casual request was actually a strategic move on Peter and Annette’s part, that there was a whole plan. I think they were desperate to find someone since summer was just around the corner.

Although EWP was always my home, I would not have accepted if Tim Dang were not artistic director. I wanted to work for an organization with vision and strong leadership; for someone I knew would inspire me. I consider myself extremely lucky to work in a creative environment with people I really like and respect…I still act once in awhile but my first commitment is to my job as Arts Education Director of East West Players. Being the arts education director I oversee our educational programming. One of my responsibilities is to advocate for more visibility for Asian Americans in the media, specifically network TV.

EWP is a member of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC). One of our responsibilities is to meet with the networks to give them a progress report with regard to the number of Asian Americans in all creative categories: writers, producers, directors, and creative execs as well as diversity initiatives. After 10 I’m relieved and happy to say progress has been made – roles are much more substantial and we are no longer relegated to playing the stereotypic geisha, houseboy or gang member. That said, we need to see more APA’s in starring roles or stars of their own show. Recently I became co-chair along with Guy Aoki of the APAMC. With Karen Narasaki stepping down, we have enormous shoes to fill and it’s a bit daunting but there’s still work to be done. I must confess, I’ve had some amazing opportunities here that I never would have experienced otherwise…it’s been a great artistic ride so far.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

Perhaps Keiko Agena – the early years, I like her energy and spunk. Tamlyn Tomita in my more mature years, I realize she’s much too young but she captures a lot of qualities I aspire to. She’s intelligent, has a sense of style, eloquence, and is just a good human being.

How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?

Start out by going to our website at www.eastwestplayers.org then come support us by coming to see a performance; there is nothing like experiencing live theater. As an audience member you have an immediate relationship with the actors on stage, it’s a symbiotic one that allows you to take the journey with them which is incredible. In a world where we continue to live behind glass windows, talking on cells, communicating on the Internet, where imagination has taken a back seat–live theater has the ability to truly transport and transform you. I shutter to think of what would happen if Asian American theater didn’t exist. Who would be our storytellers?

If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?

With the population becoming so multi-racial, I think one day, we’ll all be the same race and belong to one global community.

Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?

Whatever you do, study your craft and be the best you can be, don’t think you can just make it on your beauty or good looks. That only goes so far. And learn about the business, being an actor/performing artist/singer is fine but having a good business head will go a long way. Lastly, I read an interview with Ethan Le Phong (played Pippin in EWP’s PIPPIN) who is now touring with Mamma Mia! and he said, “Make rejection your best friend.” I couldn’t agree more. (Would you give different advice for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?) Not really. I do believe unfortunately that APA’s still have a long way to go before the playing field is leveled. Like I said earlier, if you have a dream project, don’t wait for it to happen. We have to empower ourselves to create our own vehicles, our own bodies of work.

Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?

Ochazuke –rice with tea over it. I grew up with Ochazuke, even after eating a complete meal, I would end it with Ochazuke. It was a good way to leave my ochawan (rice bowl) clean since we were always told not to leave any rice. If you did, you would get acne or something. It was just a way of getting us to do what our parents told us to do.

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

Netflix!

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Author: Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (www.CHOPSO.com), the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.