Washougal Art & Music Festival

Bobby Bermea: Ken Yoshikawa, man on a mission

The Portland poet, actor and playwright, whose "From a Hole in the Ground" has just opened in a co-production from Corrib and Alberta House, is "interested in breaking the rules of reality.”

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Playwright/poet/actor Ken Yoshikawa. Photo: Emma Browne
Playwright/poet/actor Ken Yoshikawa. Photo: Emma Browne

Ken Yoshikawa is a man on a mission. What exactly that mission is, he’s still clarifying for himself, but he’s not letting the uncertainty dampen the fervor with which he pursues it.

For the past few years Yoshikawa has made his mark as a published poet (you can find his book Monster Colored Glasses at Powell’s, but if you’re interested, you can also buy it from him directly), a spoken-word performer, and one of the more singular actors in the Portland theater scene. A Yoshikawa interpretation of any given role is going to be unlike anyone else’s you are likely to see.

That sense of creative adventure pervades all of his acting, and now he’s turned that risk-taking sensibility to writing plays. A couple of months ago Yoshikawa had his first full production with We Wrote This with You in Mind, a play he wrote in collaboration with director Rebby Yuer Foster, associate artistic director of Shaking the Tree. And he’s just opened another commission, From a Hole in the Ground, a co-production between Corrib Theatre and the Historic Alberta House, being performed at the latter’s space, 5131 N.E. 23rd Ave. in Portland, from April 26 to May 19.

On one hand, Yoshikawa’s rise as a playwright seems sudden. But as is usually the case, a lot of work went into it, a lot of trial and tribulation, a lot of life lived and a lot of the right person stepping in at the right time. “I started out as an actor,” Yoshikawa says, “then it became poetry. I wrote a play or two in high school but then I stopped writing plays. I forgot about playwriting because I didn’t feel it was in my wheelhouse.”

Ken Yoshikawa's book of poetry "Monster Colored Glasses."
Ken Yoshikawa’s book of poetry “Monster Colored Glasses.”

Poetry sustained Yoshikawa through his time at Reed College and after. Eventually, he turned to spoken word and Portland’s slam scene, but not for long. “[Slam] was a really good place for me to process a lot of feelings, a lot of trauma, a lot of healing,” says Yoshikawa. “Then I realized I was trying to win the slam and that wasn’t for me.”

Still, the journey of self-discovery was fully in motion and other artists in Yoshikawa’s life began to take notice. At one spoken word event, the poet Igor Brezhnev, introduced himself. “He was starting a small press, says Yoshikawa. “He asked me if I had a book. I said no. ‘Do you want one?’” Yoshikawa laughs. “I said yes.” Over the course of a year, Brezhnev worked with Yoshikawa on his book. In the meantime, he produced a spoken word album, Quiver, and even took a one-man show comprised of his poetry, The Art of Fly Swatting, to the Pan Asian Repertory in New York City.

"Quiver," Yoshikawa's album of spoken word poetry.
“Quiver,” Yoshikawa’s album of spoken word poetry.

“From there,” Yoshikawa says today, “it was a natural bridge to writing plays, because at some point I realized I’d written enough about myself, at least about ‘my story.’ I wanted to turn my attention to things that were more than just myself.” He began working on a prequel to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and even had it workshopped at Artists Repertory Theatre, during the dark days of the pandemic, when the company was developing a lot of new work. “That was revealing to me, because it was like 240 pages, this massive thing. I ended up cutting a whole lot of it and like five or six characters.”

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The next destiny-shaping moment for Yoshikawa happened when he took a class with Daniel Kitrosser through the playwright group Linestorm. “Dan’s amazing,” he says. “We love Dan. First class he tells us, ‘Everybody repeat after me: I am a playwright.’ Given that green light I just started going for it, writing a lot of short plays.”

This burst of activity led to Yoshikawa getting noticed by the Historic Alberta House artistic director, Vin Shambry. “He and Matthew [Kerrigan, Alberta House managing director] brought me in to Alberta House,” Yoshikawa said. “We did some co-productions of my work. They have been really instrumental in lifting me up to a position of being seen.”

Olivia Matthews (front) and Claire Aldridge in Ken Yoshikawa's play "From a Hole in the Ground." Photo: Owen Carey
Olivia Matthews (front) and Claire Aldridge in Ken Yoshikawa’s play “From a Hole in the Ground.” Photo: Owen Carey

Two years ago, Rebby Yuer Foster approached Yoshikawa with what he remembers as “a title and a feeling and a vibe and like a loose subject of a nameless, looming grief and Chinese and Japanese folktales.”

They had been in each other’s orbit for some time at that point. “He had sent me a lot of one-act plays and a lot of one-person scenes,” says Foster. “We’ve also produced a reading of one of his plays here at Shaking the Tree, so I was pretty familiar with his work.” Foster appreciated that Yoshikawa’s work “ is very poetic and lyrical. He does a really good job of combining that with naturalistic dialogue. Not all playwrights do that as smoothly as Ken does.”

And there was another connection. “I wanted someone who was half-Asian and half-white,” says Foster, “like I am, so that we could collaborate on the story. There was a lot about my family and my family’s dynamic that I felt like only someone who was part Asian could understand.”

Their process was multifaceted and intuitive. “We would work together,” says Foster, “at Lake’s (the music composer for We Wrote This with You in Mind) apartment and while Lake was playing the piano I would give Ken prompts on writing a monologue or writing a scene and he would go off and write something and then we would gather again and he would read it out loud and then he would go off again and continue to work on it. It was really back and forth.”  

“Rebby would send me these playlists,” Yoshikawa recalls, “and I would write to these playlists, stream-of-consciousness poetry to develop language. Then Rebby would collage the text together.”

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Over the next several months they brought in other collaborators, including actors Kai Hynes and Kayla Hanson and costume designer Wendi YuLing, and together they devised the play. “We hashed out the characters together,” says Yoshikawa. “It was really just my job to decide what they say. We decided together who they were, where they were, and we decided together what happens. I took that and just filled the world with their impulses and words and the way they would interact. Then we refined it down through drafts, clarifying their arcs. It was a really good learning process for me.”

Kai Hynes and Kayla Hanson in Ken Yoshikawa’s play “We Wrote This with You in Mind” at Shaking the Tree Theatre. Photo: Rick Liu

That process was very different from the one that led to his current production, From a Hole in the Ground. “I saw a staged reading of some of Ken’s work,” says Corrib artistic director Holly Griffith. “I thought his poetry was so rich and evocative. I had this idea of asking a playwright – possibly Irish, possibly not – to take some Irish mythology and adapt it in their style, in their voice with their own artistic spin on it. I was really interested in stretching those myths a little bit, pulling at them and seeing how they could apply, not only in America but to other cultures and situations. I approached Ken with that task and asked if he would be interested in doing that.”

For his part, Yoshikawa remembers his response being fairly straightforward. “I’m like, ‘Hell yes. Let’s go.’  

What Griffith didn’t know initially was that Yoshikawa is, in fact, part Irish. “It was cool to begin to connect to that,” says Yoshikawa. “My mom, my grandfather. I was encouraged by Matthew [Kerrigan] to go to Ireland and really experience it, really feel what it was like, and let that inform how I was approaching the script.”

Yoshikawa spent two weeks there, a time when he was going through an unnamed grief in his personal life. He didn’t write in Ireland so much as he absorbed. In America, he says, “unless you’re talking to someone Indigenous, you go back a few generations and the roots go somewhere else. It’s not that way in Ireland. Or in Japan, for that matter. It changes things. The connection of the people to the land is different. Ireland is a great place to write and be sad.” He didn’t write a lot on the play, concentrating instead on being open to what he was feeling with poetry and short stories. 

When he returned, his journey had indeed informed his writing. “Ken’s not afraid of leaving questions in the air,” muses Griffith. “He’s also not afraid of mixing older language and more contemporary language, which is useful for folktale retelling. Because it has an older sensibility, but then the characters talk like we do. That makes it fresh and accessible and shows how folklore and fairytale can really be present in our lives. We tend to think of folklore and fairytales as old, and Ken does not. He’s very interested in making sure that the story is alive today. The characters speak like everyday people, sometimes including internet-speak, which has become part of our language. He uses the poetics of now to add nuance.”

Among publishing a book of poetry, an album, writing two plays and having them produced, and acting in other companies productions, it’s remarkable that Yoshikawa still found time to take part in PETE’s Institute for Contemporary performance, but somehow he managed to do so.

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Joellen Sweeney (left) and Claire Aldridge in Yoshikawa's "From a Hole in the Ground." Photo: Owen Carey
Joellen Sweeney (left) and Claire Aldridge in Yoshikawa’s “From a Hole in the Ground.” Photo: Owen Carey

“ICP changed me as an artist,” he says. “It changed what I believed was possible, how I collaborate with people. It increased my confidence and stretched me out in wonderful ways. Now I can reach higher, go deeper and be weirder. I love that permission and that exposure and that experimentation and collaboration. I have found that things I learned there have made me a better playwright and a better actor, and they defined my ability to work through my collaborations with Shaking the Tree and with Corrib.”

It seems significant to the story of Ken Yoshikawa that each of these two productions has specifically demanded that he look specifically at his cultural identity and share what he’s learned with the audience. Living at the crossroads of bloodlines and history can be an emotionally charged experience, to be carefully navigated, and exploring that complexity through art to be performed in front of an audience takes a certain kind of sensitivity and courage.

This is not a limiting factor in Yoshikawa’s life but a liberating one. “I’m still finding my voice as a writer, and going to Ireland helped me ground deeper into new aspects of myself and my intuitive connection to process,” he says. But at the same time he notes, Tthere are some parts of me that are only accessible through Japanese.”

If there’s one other significant factor that influences and informs Yoshikawa’s work, it’s that you will find an element of the fantastical in everything he writes. That forms a significant portion of his creative bond with Rebby Foster. And it’s part of what Griffith saw that made her think he would be the right playwright for her Irish myth project.

Ken Yoshikawa will never fit neatly into anyone else’s tightly constrained box of who they think he can be (or who they think he should be) as an artist or as a person in the world. He creates, and that’s enough. Playwriting is his prime engine now, but tomorrow that may change. Other mediums intrigue him. Maybe video games. Maybe screenwriting. Who knows?

“I’m curious about other ways of telling stories,” he says. “How much can I stretch the audience’s willingness to jump into what they’re seeing? I’m really interested in breaking the rules of reality.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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