‘Four Immigrants’: How an early 1900s comic book
birthed a new musical
By Lou Fancher
Traveling a dream-filled, improbable path not unlike that of the four Japanese immigrants at its heart, a collection of 52 comic strips first published in 1931 as a graphic memoir by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama has arrived as a world premiere musical at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.
Written by Alameda-based playwright and composer/lyricist Min Kahng, “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” launches the company’s 48th season.
The musical marks a journey from an autobiographical story about the experiences of Kiyama and his three friends living in turn-of-the-19th-century San Francisco to Kahng’s 21st century musical. And it includes a most serendipitous translation by manga expert Frederik L. Schodt.
Discovering Kiyama’s self-published “Manga Yonin Shosei” in a UC Berkeley library around 1980, Schodt translated the comic book. It was published in 1997 by Berkeley’s Stonebridge Press. Then Kahng stumbled upon Schodt’s translation, titled “The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924,” at a used book sale in Berkeley.
“Just the fact that the comic book exists is special to me, let alone my finding the translation,” says Kahng. “This was a guy who came to study art at a time when a lot of Asians came to the United States to be farm laborers or to open shops. The unique text, the Bay Area setting, the Asian-American story — all of that drew me.”
Kahng grew up in Danville, where his small-business-owner parents spoke Korean more than English. High academic standards and business career aspirations were paramount. Halfway through college at UC Berkeley, he decided to pursue theater. His works in musical theater include, among others, “The Song of the Nightingale,” an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story, and “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” an adaptation of Grace Lin’s award-winning children’s book.
Kiyama’s art, Kahng says, is intriguingly drawn in early American comic book style and lacks stereotypical caricatures, like slanted Asian eyes. The language flips expectations — Americans speak pidgin English to immigrants whose language Kiyama wrote in Japanese, which Schodt later translated into smooth-flowing English.
“We tried to honor the drawing style Henry used, yet not make it an erasure of Japanese history,” Kahng says. “Considering Asians portrayed onstage, specifically in vaudeville, the yellow face, is racist, negative, over-simplified. We decided characters would move in an Americanized style and we’d add Japanese customs and mannerisms throughout the show.”
A six-piece orchestra brings hints of operetta, vaudeville, ragtime and gradually, Japanese pentatonic tonality, to the score.
Kahng cast Asian men in the four lead roles. For gender parity, the musical’s other 90 characters are played by four women. “Theater has a history of men playing utilitarian, one-liner roles,” says Kahng. “It’s a little subversive — and fun — to have women actors play characters of all gender and ethnicities too.”
TheatreWorks Associate Artistic Director Leslie Martinson directs the production. She says the long gestation process added depth to “Four Immigrants.” Kahng began writing the show at a New Works Initiative retreat in 2014. The musical had numerous workshops including a reading at TheatreWorks’ 2016 New Works Festival.
“Min has brought more layers to the story, masterfully blending the high-energy and slapstick humor of our young heroes with the social justice issues they faced as they grew up.” Martinson says. Kahng’s imagination and applied “cartoon logic” allows a sequence to jump five years in 40 musical counts and comic strip frames are integrated into the set design. Throughout the years-long collaboration, Kahng’s innate sense of what to express in music and what should be spoken led to clarity and emotional resonance, according to Martinson.
Kahng explored vaudeville history, researched ragtime music, and visited historic San Francisco sites mentioned by Kiyama with Schodt. Four vaudeville-style “presenters” were cut after audience feedback told him the play was too long and complicated. “It zoomed the action,” Kahng says of the cuts. “I’m a big fan of the workshop process. Each reading is a time to experiment, improve, tighten, edit. I look for trends: if five people say a section confuses them, that’s worth attention. If one person doesn’t like a song, that’s singular. I try not to let that settle with me too much.”
Kahng says watching the actors dig into their roles in early versions pushed him toward more soulful portrayals of the characters in rewrites. “Henry shows his characters going through ordeals,” says Kahng. “The 1906 earthquake, the anti-Japanese sentiment are focused through a comic lens. It was important that the show not be just a comedy. Grave, realistic moments pierce through. By the end of the show we’re in a more realistic place than where we started.”
Perhaps the most unexpected element arose outside of the rehearsal studio.
“Immigration is at the top of the news. We have an image of what it looks like. I wanted to show there is no one immigrant story. There are commonalities and community, but characters don’t become blended. They have different dreams and fears. There’s something for everyone to identify with. It’s a story of individual journeys in America.”