Entertainment » Theatre

Sam Hamashima on Sondheim, 'Pacific Overtures,' and Being a Queer Artist

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 7, 2019

In an earlier interview, EDGE had a chance to chat with Carl Hsu, who stars as Kayama in the Lyric Stage Company of Boston's production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Pacific Overtures," under the direction of the Lyric's Producing Artistic Director, Spiro Veloudos.

Veloudos has brought a number of Sondheim plays to the Lyric over the course of the last several seasons; that series comes to an end, for now at least, with this production of "Pacific Overtures," a musical about the way the United States pried open trade relations with Japan in the mid-19th century, despite Japan having been rather closed off before that point.

Hamashima plays Manjiro, a fisherman who encountered a small fleet of American ships in the waters off the Japanese coast. When he returns to land, he's treated with suspicion for having had interactions with the foreigners. Meantime, a samurai named Kayama - played by Hamashima's fellow lead, Carl Hsu - is charged with the task of fending off the Westerners.

But as time passes and Westernization becomes a fact of a newly-emerging modern Japan, the two characters find themselves slowly trading places in terms of embracing or resisting the changes that are in progress.

EDGE caught up with Hamashima, a North Carolina native now based in New York City, to talk about his love of Sondheim, his Lyric Stage debut with this role, and the ways in which family history still resonate through his life and work.


EDGE: Tell me a bit about your character, Manjiro. He's a fisherman who encounters the Americans out at sea and though he's done nothing wrong, that encounter puts a cloud of suspicion over his head — yet, he remains steadfast in his dedication to traditional Japanese culture, unlike Kayama. How do you relate your own life and experience with that role?

Sam Hamashima: I am Japanese-American; my family has been in America since probably the early 1900s. I am the fourth generation, and so a lot of my Japanese culture has been lost because we were pressured to assimilate, My family was in the Japanese-American internment [that took place during World War II] and so that's why I'm from North Carolina. That's why I can't speak Japanese. It's why the only thing Japanese in my home is food because if the FBI were to come, we could eat as much as we can quickly.

EDGE: That is incredible — that's a true trauma across the generations!

Sam Hamashima: There's been this fear that's been passed down from generation to generation. What I love about Manjiro is that he is Americanized, very similar to me, at the beginning of the show and he has respect for Japan, but it's a foreign land. To me, Japan is a foreign land; I've never been there, and that's another whole project of mine, to sort of reclaim my history by going to the West Coast and [eventually] going to Japan.

I see a lot of myself in Manjiro in that he's in this in-between world, where he's not really sure if he's American, and he's not sure if he's Japanese, and he's starting to become, I would say, the aggressive youth of the show. He doesn't communicate through words. By the end of the show, he resorts to violence. I think in all these Sondheim shows you see characters who stop listening and stop communicating, and that is ultimately, I think, Manjiro's Achilles' heel, his violence. I try to communicate as much as I can, so no resorting to violence here! But I will say that him being in these crossroads, and him seeing his heritage, his old Japan, and him seeing that we must move forward, to his America — that's a huge thing. I think that's something my great-grandparents had to deal with a lot. It's really cool being in the show, where I can sort of see the echoes of my heritage through the staging, through the samurai elements. My great-great-grandfather was a samurai, so it's been really cool getting to work with a katana and learn all this stuff.

My great-grandfather was a kabuki performer, and he started one of the first kabuki companies in California at the time, and there are some kabuki elements in the show, too — so, it's been a huge full-circle moment for me being in this show and getting to look back at the people that came before me and honor them through this musical.


EDGE: As a Japanese American, have you had to deal with similar unfounded skepticism — for example, have you had to deal much with the "Where are you from?" question?

Sam Hamashima: I have had to deal with that question a lot. And I think the more I'm asked it, the less I am angry about it because there's an intention behind it, which is, "Tell me more about you." Right? And I think sometimes it feels like people are bothering me, or just assuming I'm from Japan, so I take that, but I can also step back and say. "They're just trying to figure out who I am."

My mother is Caucasian, and my father is Japanese, and growing up they would always ask my mom, like, where'd they get me. And she was always, like, "My vagina." That was a funny North Carolina moment!

[Laughter]

And I didn't really feel different until I started getting in high school and college when my identity was being brought into the classroom in a way that I wasn't ready for. I wasn't really raised to be Asian if that makes sense — I was raised to know I was Japanese, but I was raised to be American.

EDGE: You are also openly LGBTQ — on your website you describe yourself as a "queer artist." What do you mean when you say that?

Sam Hamashima: When I say "queer artist," I'm saying I'm not gonna leave that identity outside the room. It's connected to my art. I am queer, and there's no way you can take the queer out of me. Defining [myself] as a queer artist makes it so people who don't necessarily want a queer person in that space, they don't have to hire me — which I think is a win-win for both of us.

I think being a queer artist, for me, is directly connected to activism. I try my best to bring a queer conversation into the spaces I'm in, even if that's talk off stage, or backstage, or through social media. Or in connection with the show — like, this show doesn't have any LGBTQ themes to it as far as I know, and that's okay, but I, me, Sam Hamashima, is still queer, and therefore my performance is queer.

EDGE: Does that color your portrayal of Manjiro?

Sam Hamashima: Yes, and I wouldn't say that Manjiro is queer; I think that's between him and his god. I think that I'm queer, and so... when I write a play that's centered around Japanese-American imprisonment, it's still going to be inherently queer because I'm the one writing it.


EDGE: How interesting! Have you written that play?

Sam Hamashima: Yes, I have. We have a world premiere in June.

EDGE: That's fantastic! That's obviously coming in the wake of George Takei's play "Allegiance," which is a musical about the same subject matter. Did that play open doors for you, or did people have expectations about your play based on "Allegiance?"

Sam Hamashima: I wouldn't say expectations; I would say they became more familiar with the material through "Allegiance." My show is exploring the twenty-four hours between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war, so there's one number in "Allegiance" — the first number — and they sort of run through that, like, "This is what we have to get rid of." My play is ninety minutes of a Japanese-American family trying to figure out what to keep and what is dangerous. There's a culture physically manifested in a maneki-neko, a lucky cat — and a paper crane spirit. It's fun — it's fun to write. I love writing, and I love acting.

It's very important to my family, everything I write about this time period. I'm the oral tradition keeper for my family, so I try to put it in my plays as well. I'm excited for the show — it's my first produced play. I'm working with a really cool creative team. They are really receptive to the ideas; there's slam poetry in the play, there's an anime fight scene... I think it's gonna be really fun.

EDGE: But whereas "Allegiance" is a musical, your play won't be, is that right?

Sam Hamashima: No, my play is a very gay play, but a straight play nonetheless.

[Laughter]

Sam Hamashima: And it does have some elements of soundscapes, like when the entire cast is speaking about the way they feel and yet they can't hear each other, They are all speaking to audience, and it all lines up pretty phonetically, with the way the syllables hit. That's a big thing I learned from my family and my culture — we were told to keep our feelings inside. We're still keeping them inside with these characters... we're just putting them out and we're seeing the audience connect with each one, and everyone actually feels the same, yet no one will talk about it.

EDGE On the other hand, "Pacific Overtures" is a musical, of course — how do you see the show's songs as informing its dramatic and historical content?

Sam Hamashima: I think Stephen Sondheim did a really great job of finding universality in this moment in history. I think "Four Black Dragons," that [song] boiled down is about an Other coming — an Other intruding. It's sort of like the Giant in "Into the Woods," right? And what I love is that he makes these songs so he can keep it very simple, We see this thing coming, and we're not sure what it is. I think the songs in "Pacific Overtures:" do a really great job of condensing a long time period of assimilation and putting it into a show. During one song I think, like, ten years go by, and he does a really good job of keeping the show grounded in the themes while jumping through time periods.


EDGE: Is it a challenge, as an actor, for your character to age decades over the course of the show — or, as you were just saying, even over the course of a single song?

Sam Hamashima: I tried it t home, and it was pretty hard.

[Laughter]

Sam Hamashima: It's hard, but I think the lyrics give us something to grab on to. I bet Carl talked to you a little bit about [the song] "Bowler Hat." I'm on stage for that as well — I'm not singing, but I think the lyrics really progress in a way of how Carl's character feels about these Western objects, and as the song progresses time moves on. Sondheim does a really good job of showing us the distinctions between the times, and there is a very clearly laid out path laid out by [librettist] John Weidman of how my character Manjiro develops and grows based on the events around him.

EDGE Your bio says you are a big Sondheim fan, and so is director Spiro Veloudos. What has it been like working with someone that fanatical about Sondheim's work?

Sam Hamashima: I watched an interview with Spiro before I got this, and I was like, "Oh my god, I have to work with this guy!" I'm a huge Sondheim fan. I'm fresh out of college, and there's a lot of [advice to the effect of] "Dance! Go dance on Broadway!" I'm really dedicated toward complex material. Sondheim just fully integrates his music with his lyrics with his book with his lights with his set; I don't think there's been anyone that's so unconventional and yet so grounded in what he does, and so I have a lot of respect for his material. I see the hard work behind it; I see that everything has a reason.

It's really inspiring to be with Spiro and watch him point out all these things in the script. He stages a musical like it's a play: He's actually staging like musicals should be staged. It's story-based, it's all about the story, and it's about the lyrics., and it's about what is going on in the context. That being said, we have some really incredible dance numbers. There is a traditional Japanese dance that Tamate — the wife of Carl's character Kayama — does, and it's just so striking. Michelene Wu, the choreographer, is trained in traditional dance, and she has been an incredible asset to our production, She's making the choreography shine in a way that complements the book and complements the score, and I think it works extremely well with Spiro's academic, insightful staging.


An interview with Sam's castmate Carl Hsu is available here.

"Pacific Overtures" runs May 10 — June 16. For tickets and more information, go to https://www.lyricstage.com/productions/pacific-overtures/#Summary


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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