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Japanese American Playwright Wakako Yamauchi Dies at 93

Pioneer playwright Wakako Yamauchi died yesterday at home in Gardena, California at age 93.

Most famous for her first play, “And the Soul Shall Dance”, commissioned in 1977 by the theater company East West Players, Yamauchi was also a talented poet and fiction writer.

Set during the Great Depression, the play delves into the racism and injustice that Asian immigrants faced in the first half of the 20th century. It won numerous accolades, including the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and a film contract with PBS. Following this initial success, Yamauchi earned playwright grants from the prestigious Mark Taper Forum and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Many of Yamauchi’s writings were based on her own experiences growing as a second-generation Japanese American in California’s Imperial Valley. Born on October 24,1924 into a family of farmers, she had a transient childhood — her family jumped from town to town to grow their crops, due to the Alien Land Act that forbade Japanese residents from owning property. When Yamauchi was 17 years old, her family was forced to resettle in Poston, Arizona at a World War II concentration camp.

According to one of the former directors of the East West Players, Tim Dang, Yamauchi is etched into Asian American history as a playwright pioneer. Dang said to the Los Angeles Times that most of the 60 or so Asian American theater companies in the U.S., have put on a production of “And the Soul Shall Dance” in their first season.

Compared to other early Asian American playwrights, Yamauchi’s work is unique because she features strong female protagonists. She is also the only woman in this first batch of famous playwrights.

The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles also shared a press release celebrating Yamauchi’s literary talent. The museum is home to the Wakako Yamauchi Papers, 1950–2005, that contain items she created and collected throughout these decades. After becoming a member in 1994, Yamauchi first donated her papers in 1999, and the remainder in 2007. This collection includes “drafts of scripts, letters, short stories, promotional materials, reviews, contracts and photographs,” according to the museum website.

“Wakako [Yamauchi] was an inspiring woman who was among the first writers to bring Japanese American and Asian American experiences to the stage. Her work was powerful and influential. She will be missed but her writing will live on and be appreciated forever,” said Ann Burroughs, President and CEO of Japanese American National Museum.

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