50 years after ‘Coda’s’ debut centering a queer romantic triangle

This column forms part of a series on the Queer history of Japanese Americans that I publish each June to mark LGBT Pride month. This year’s installment discusses Alberto Isaac’s one-act play “Coda,” first performed in 1973. With nice symmetry, my column on it stands as something of a coda to a previous story told in these pages.

Back in 2013, my Queer history column centered on “Tondemonai — Never Happen!,” a 1970 play by Soon-Tek Oh (aka Soon-Taik Oh). Oh’s work was one of the earliest plays commissioned and performed by the renowned Asian American theater troupe East West Players, then in its beginning years. “Tondemonai” was the first full-length drama and first commercial production to portray the Japanese American confinement, and it highlighted the trauma of the camps. At the play’s core was a love relationship between two men: a Kibei Nisei named Koji Murayama, portrayed by Mako; and a young Chinese American, Fred Chung, played by the Filipino American actor Alberto Isaac. Coming at a time when redress for former camp inmates was a distant dream, and gay sex was illegal in California (and every other state but one), the production was amazingly forward-thinking. Particularly daring was its opening scene, which showed the two lovers lying next to each other unclothed.

“Tondemonai” aroused hostility among reviewers and sponsors, and was never revived after its initial staging. All the same, members of the East West group remained interested in bringing contemporary issues of race and sexuality to their productions. Isaac, while enrolled at California State Los Angeles some years before, had drafted a short play as a senior project. It involved a love triangle among two men and a woman, all of them white. In early 1973, Isaac returned to his abandoned play and reshaped it by making two of the characters Asian American. He hurriedly wrote a script as the first act of a projected long play. Isaac’s colleague Mako suggested that he present the script instead as a freestanding one-act play. Perhaps ironically, since it was detached from a larger work, the author titled the piece “Coda.”

“Coda” tells the story of Chris Matsuda, a Japanese American in his 30s. Chris is a classical composer who earns a living writing jingles for an inane children’s show, but dreams of writing an operatic version of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” to be staged in kabuki style. In addition to his efforts to reconcile his Japanese heritage and his love of Western classical music, Chris is divided in his personal life between his affection for Maggie, a young Filipina American neighbor, and his sexual desire for men. Maggie loves Chris but is hurt by his inability to fully return that love.

The play takes place in the morning after a late Saturday night. Chris has brought home Lanny, an intoxicated young white man whom he met at a party, only to have Lanny fall asleep on Chris’ bed.

When the scene opens, Maggie and Chris are waking up after spending the night sleeping together on Chris’ living room floor. Maggie is unhappy about the sexual scraps Chris gives her while reserving his main interest for men. She cruelly teases Chris about his sexual orientation and his taste for what she calls, “blond, rosy-cheeked Hitler-youth types.” Chris is bothered by her negative attitude, since he is straightforward about his desires, though he declares to her, “in so far as I am capable of love, I love you” — an avowal that fails to move her.

Finally, Maggie leaves and Lanny awakens. He has no memory of the previous night’s events and does not remember Chris. Lanny loudly affirms his desire for women, but confesses that he is aroused by the idea of a threesome with another guy. Uncertain of Lanny’s true sexuality, Chris asks Maggie to seduce the young man, on the theory that he might then be more open to having sex with Chris as well. Though Maggie is horrified at the idea of “pimping” herself for Chris, she finally agrees, but then is unable to go through with it — ironically, she is so in love with Chris that she can’t bring herself to have sex with other men. Lanny leaves, and Chris and Maggie both admit that they were really only attracted to him because he is white. The play ends with Lanny’s return, though whether anything sexual will then happen is left ambiguous.

Isaac described “Coda” as “a bitter comedy.” In an interview, he explained, “Most actors who write plays usually put in a role for themselves. All three characters are me…They are all just reflections of myself.…” He added that many Asian actresses wanted to play the role of Maggie because they found something of themselves in her. “I’d like to be witty like Maggie,” Isaac admitted.

East West Players put Isaac’s work into production along with Ed Sakamoto’s one-act play ”Yellow is my Favorite Color” on a program billed as “Two Shades of Yellow.” Beyond the involvement of author Alberto Isaac and the presence of a queer theme, “Coda” had a strong “Tondemonai” connection: Mako directed the production, and it starred two actors who had previously appeared in Oh’s play: Robert Ito (who would become widely known for his role on the TV series “Quincy, ME”) and Sumi Haru, a Filipina American actress and union activist. J.C. Nicols, a white actor, played the supporting role.

“Two Shades of Yellow” premiered in Los Angeles in June 1973. On the night before the official opening, there was a benefit performance for the campaign of actor George Takei, who was running for Los Angeles City Council. It was hosted by Takei, actor Philip Ahn, and talent agent Bessie Loo. The initial production proved profitable, playing to full houses every night, and performances were ultimately extended until Labor Day.

“Coda” attracted positive (and perceptive) reviews. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, critic Dan Sullivan noted, “There is laughter here, too, but it is the surface laughter of people caught in a troubling situation….[Chris and Maggie] are prisoners of sex much more than of race, but the racial thing is there: white thought of as the desideratum, yellow and brown as second. But always Isaac’s people come before any theories you can draw about them, and the ending is just inconclusive enough to convince.” Ray Loynd, writing in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, found the play’s subject “ugly,” but added, “it’s also an impressively structured and cohesive work.” The Santa Monica Evening Outlook commented, “‘Coda’ is a study of two men and one woman whose sexual tastes make each a target for the other two. The subject enthralls as it blends the Oriental American’s problems with issues of morality, creativity and friendship.” The Daily News Post of Monrovia noted,

“Both plays take adult, penetrating and sometimes humorous looks at the sexual conflicts and identity crises of Asian Americans in their efforts to reconcile their ethnic heritage with the present culture in America.”

Ironically, the one uniformly hostile review came in the Japanese American press. Rafu Shimpo critic Ellen Endo Kayano, showing a startling lack of perception, summarized the play as a “slow-moving work about a bisexual male who brings a potential boyfriend home to meet his girlfriend.” Kayano, who had reacted with prim disapproval to what she termed the “sordid” inclusion of nudity and gay content in “Tondemonai,” was even more openly homophobic in her dismissal: “‘Coda’ deals primarily with perversion, with a few phrases about bananas thrown in so that it could legitimately be billed ‘a shade of yellow.’”

In 1979 the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco mounted a new production of “Coda,” in tandem with Paul Lim’s gay-themed drama, “Points of Departure.” Dennis Dun and Anna Duhay played the leads. Rodney Kageyama, an openly gay Sansei, served as director. This production attracted further positive comment. A critic in the Bay Area Reporter stated that “Coda” was “so chock full of deliciously devilish little twists of dialogue and plot” that it far outshone the Lim work. Robert Chesley offered praise for “Coda” In the gay weekly The Advocate as a “skillfully written” play: “The characters are expertly drawn, the dialogue is both funny and uncannily real, and the scenes flow naturally and inevitably toward a bitter revelation that transcends the immediate circumstances of the plot. A Japanese American man and his Filipino-American woman friend are both led, by their sexual attraction to a very ordinary white stud, to betray the deeper values they hold and which are necessary for their self-respect.” San Francisco Examiner critic Jeanne Miller stated, “It soon becomes obvious that Chris and Maggie’s problems go far beyond their sexual orientation and that the self-hatred that consumes them comes from feeling inferior to the white man they both covet.”

June 2023 marks 50 years since the premiere of “Coda.” Despite its favorable reception in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the play faded from view, and has not been publicly performed since a 1981 AATC production. It well deserves a new look from theatergoers and scholars.

While perhaps not as radically ahead of its time as “Tondemonai,” it does represent a real breakthrough. Like two films that appeared around the same time, John Schlesinger’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret,” it portrays a sexual and romantic triangle with a bisexual man at its apex. Its portrait of a queer Japanese American protagonist, one who is not mentally ill or ashamed of his orientation, frames the subject of sexuality in everyday, non-sensational terms that lead audiences to think.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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