An American Musical Manga”
Premiered with an Standing Ovation
By Iride Aparicio

Photos by:  Kevin Berne
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The cast of  Theatre Works Production,  “The Four Immigrants”

PALO ALTO, CA –  To come to live in The United States of America has been the ambition of many people for years.  “The American Dream”  has impelled the citizens of the world’s countries to leave their homeland and arrive in America’s shores, legally or illegally, with nothing, but the hope that in America, they will be able to worship their own deities without fear; secure a job doing what they know; be able to support their families, and live in peace.  

It is no wonder that the pursue of  “The American Dream” has been in the plots  of  novels, plays, movies, musicals and stories, where the principal character, usually male, arrives in America with with nothing, but a dream in his heart. As he tries to reach it, our character fails, not once, but over and over again. But at the end of the story, when everything seems hopeless, the principal character seizes his goal, demonstrating that in America, anyone who is determined to fight for his dream, can reach it.

Opening its 48th Season, Theatre Works Silicon Valley is presenting the World Premier  of “FOUR IMMIGRANTS: An American Musical Manga,”(Meaning cartoon in Japanese) the story of  four young Japanese farmers who came to San Francisco in 1904 in quest of  the American Dream.

Because their story is based on true facts, what  our heroes experienced in America, was very different than “the life in America” that was portrayed in the works of fiction, and the first-generation Japanese group to immigrate to America begin realizing it the moment they arrived in San Francisco.

Just a few minutes after disembarking, they are told that they will not be allowed to go into the city because two of them had an eye infection. Instead of curing them or sending them to see a doctor as they expected, the sick ones are put in quarantine behind bars for a few days until their infection goes away.    

During the twenty-seven years the four men lived in San Francisco, all the important events in their  lives were captured graphically in black ink and white paper sketches drawn by HENRY KYAMA, (see cartoon above) who was one of them. Years later and before returning to Japan, KYAMA compiled all his drawings into 52 comic strips, and made a graphic comic novel, in book form, which he self published  in l931 under the name "Four Students." He called it that way because these Japanese men were really student, who fleeing the war came to America as pioneers to learn English, to study, and to learn Western commerce. In other words with Ambition and with Hope. In Japan they were "Shosei" a word which describes the students who work as house servants in the morning, and go to school in the evening, but because there is no word which describes this arrangement in Engish, the name of KYAMA's book was changed to “FOUR IMMIGRANTS: an American Manga”

In 2012, Playwright/Composer MIN KAHNG,  went to a used bookstore in downtown Berkeley and browsing the graphic novels section, discovered the book with non-stereotypical  Asian drawings of Asian men, drawn by KYAMA, a Japanese artist. KAHNG was attracted by the story because it had taken place in the Bay Area, so he decided to write a musical based on the stories from the book.

Trying to convey the "sounds" of the 1900s, MIN KAHNG composed special music for it and then worked, over a year, with Theatre Works’ Associate Artistic Director LESLIE MARTINSON, in the adaptation of a comic book to musical-book (libretto) for what he called  “FOUR IMMIGRANTS: an American Musical Manga.

The musical opens with the  four Japanese farmers arriving in San Francisco, standing on the boat. In song, they introduced themselves one by one. They are:

Henry (JAMES SEOL) (pictured in the back left of KYAMA's drawing) Henry wanted education, easels and skills. He is an artist and came to America with the purpose to study art, so that one day. his pictures , some of them oil portraits, and sceneries, would be exhibited in galleries and his genius will be recognized by the American people, As an artist, he wants to make a mark in the world or Art.

While learning, he continues drawing figures (in simple caricature fashion) in the small sketch book he carries with him at all times, recording in his pictures the chunks of his life.

Art History tells us that the real HENRY YOSHITAKA KIYAMA studied art at the San Francisco Art institute and was influenced by Eastern and Western Traditions. Today he is recognized as one of the first Japanese-born artists to master Western Styles.

As portrayed by KIYAMA in his sketch below, the other three men are:

The Four Immigrants_Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama_thumb.jpgCharlie, (HANSEL TAN) the tallest one of them. Charlie, in reality and in the musical loved America. He joined the USA army and fought in the World War as a soldier hoping to become an American Citizen. Sadly, the America of the 1900s, never accepted him  because he was Japanese, so the United States of America Naturalization services denied to give him citizenship.

Frank (PHIL WONG), standing in the front center of the drawing embracing himself, came to American wanting to become and entrepreneur. He wanted open his own shoe store. But there are regularions about renting and purchasing buildings, so as he is still struggling to open his own shop, he lends money to his other friends and gets stressed by his father, a Samurai in Japan, who every letter he writes him asks him: when are you going to start sending money to your father?

And according to the musical, Fred (SEAN FENTON) first Left front on cartoon wearing a hat, is the only one of the four Japanese who learned what it takes to succeed n America. 

Fred reaches the American Dream. He becomes rich and even get married and lived happily ever after after he ordered a Japanese wife by mail.

The musical, made out of short skits, changes places and years rapidly. Each short skit have songs such as "Go Home," "Frank's Dream" "Optimism" (perhaps the best of them) and "The Song of the picture Brides" which were Japanese women living in Japan who were bought by men living in America and sent to them.The All Asian Cast includes four women who play the mail-order wives and many other different roles. They are: RINABETH APOSTOL, KERRY K. CARNAHAN, CATHERINE GLORIA and LINDSAY HIRATA.


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The Japanese mail brides look at the pictures of the men who order them.

We fowllow these men through the years,1904-1924, which include: the San Francisco earthquake, (l906) the  First World War (l914) and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Expo.

During those years we see them during good times, and baring their failures. We see them working doing different menial works, suffering scams, hearing about the death of their relatives in Japan, getting narried and having children, and always trying to learn how to live in America. And in spite of everything, remaining together.

Apparently, they never forgot that when they first arrived in America, they were told by a Japanese counselor in a Japanese shelter where they lived, that to stay here, they had to accept every job that as offering to them with humility, becasu the last thing they wanted to hear from their employeers was: “Go home.”

Masterfully directed by LESLIE MARTINSON, The all Japanese cast of Actors give realistic performances. The musical's music, if not memorable, is pleasant. The singing voices are good and well tuned. And uner Conductor WILLIAM LIBERATORE. The orchestra sounded perfect, making "THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS an entertaining show.


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Charlie (TAN) third from left, is being cheated at the casino

But what, makes “The FOUR IMMIGRANTS: An American Musical Manga” unique, however, is that one of the "real stories" told in the musical, actually proved that in America, anyone who is determined to fight for his dream, can reach it.

In l904, an unknown Japanese young artist HENRY YOSHITAKA KIYAMA arrived to San Francisco with a dream of fame in his heart. Years later, convinced by his many rejections that his talent as an artist was never going to be recognized in America, he returned frustrated to Japan, convinced that America a land created by immigrants, and made great by immigrants, had too much prejudism to accept a Japanese artist.

Little did KIYAMA knew, that one hundred thirteen years later, his cartoon drawings would inspire Playwright/Composer MIN KAHNG to write a musical based in his life.  Now, with this musical, KIYAMA's drawings will be known, by many people. And maybe one day, because of KAHNG's musical, his name will be shown in lights in the marquees of  Broadway. 

THE FOUR  IMMIGRANTS will continue playing at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto until August 6.To order tickets go online toTheatreWorks.org or  call(650) 463-1960.