Wakako Yamauchi, a pioneering Japanese American writer, poet and playwright, died at her home in Gardena, Calif, on Aug. 16, 2018. She was 93.
Her first play, 1977’s “And the Soul Shall Dance,” shed light on “the harsh realities of the early 20th century immigrant experience” and was commissioned by the Los Angeles-based East West Players, the Los Angeles Times reported. Adapted from her short story of the same name, it won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for a new play, and was filmed for broadcast on PBS that year.
She would go on to receive playwriting grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mark Taper Forum, which helped to distinguish Yamauchi as “an early and influential figure in Asian American theater,” the Times stated.
Yamauchi was born Wakako Nakamura in 1924 in Westmorland, Calif., the second-generation daughter of Japanese immigrants. Her parents worked as itinerant farmers in California’s Imperial Valley.
During World War II, when she was 17, her family was sent to an American concentration camp in Poston, Ariz.. She wrote for the camp newspaper alongside writer Hisaye Yamamoto, forging a long friendship.
“Yamauchi’s difficult life in the Imperial Valley and at Poston informed much of her writing, which often grappled with racism, intolerance and injustice,” the Times wrote.
East West Players staged Yamauchi plays that included “The Chairman’s Wife,” which dramatizes the life of Madame Mao; “12-1-A,” which refers to her family’s address in the concentration camp; and “The Music Lessons,” about a Japanese widow and her family living in the Imperial Valley in the 1920s.
In 1994, a seminal collection of Yamauchi’s plays and stories was published under the title “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”.
But “And the Soul Shall Dance” remained the crowning achievement of her career, the Times noted.
“It is a beautiful play, grounded in an absolutely authoritative knowledge of who these people were and how they lived,” wrote Times theater critic Dan Sullivan in 1977 when the play opened at East West Players. “Ms. Yamauchi knows them so well that she can show their contradictions without confusing us.”
Yamauchi donated her papers to the Los Angeles-based Japanese American National Museum in 1999 and 2007, said a museum statement.
“Wakako was an inspiring woman who was among the first writers to bring Japanese American and Asian American experiences to the stage. Her work was powerful and influential. She will be missed but her writing will live on and be appreciated forever,” said Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of JANM.