Lane Nishikawa – has been called “one of Asian America’s most compelling voices” by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki – who noted that “his work is funny, angry, and deeply moving.”
Upon seeing one of Nishikawa’s one-man shows, the esteemed Los Angeles Times theater critic Sylvie Drake declared that “his core is molten lead, his language all friskiness and abrasion…Nishikawa is a poet first, an actor second, a presence always…Nishikawa is at his best when the language takes over and we’re exposed to a tumbling profusion of culture images racing by…”
His acclaimed body of work over four decades has continually broken new ground in examining the human condition of the Asian American experience.
Through his trilogy of critically-acclaimed one-man shows, Nishikawa tackled such sensitive issues as the plight of Asian American writers who can’t get published (“Life in the Fast Lane”), the despair of Asian American actors who are excluded from mainstream roles (“I’m on a Mission from Buddha”), and how the media has stereotyped those who did succeed (“Mifune and Me”).
His celebrated play, “The Gate of Heaven,” portrayed the unlikely lifelong friendship between a Japanese American soldier and the Jewish survivor he liberates from the Dachau concentration camp – and the racial injustices both have endured.
Another, “Gila River,” followed the dreams of a young Nisei baseball star from his internment during World War II to becoming an American soldier and finding himself face-to-face with his brother who is fighting for Japan.
No less powerful, his trilogy of films – “Forgotten Valor,” “When We Were Warriors” and “Only the Brave” – celebrated the unparalleled courage of the Nisei soldiers who voluntarily fought in World War II while many of their families were imprisoned in internment camps back in the States.
“I write pieces that give an inside view, a sense of the truth about the Asian-American experience – what it’s like to breathe in my skin. I write for change, so that one day I might walk down any American street and not have someone look at me and try to guess which country I’m from,” Nishikawa says of his unique vision which continues to have a profound influence on younger generations in particular through his tours of college campuses and theaters throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe, as well the PBS broadcast of “I’m on a Mission from Buddha” in the early 1990s.
Nishikawa was born in Wahiawa on Oahu, then raised in San Francisco. During his early years, he returned to Hawaii with his sister every summer to live with his grandparents and spend time with his Hawaii family.
Like other children of Nisei (2nd generation Japanese-Americans), Nishikawa grew up hearing stories about how his relatives endured World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Among them was the imprisonment of his aunts and uncles from Stockton, California, who were sent to the internment camp Rohwer, Arkansas, as well as the deployment of his uncles to Europe to fight the Nazi’s as members of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team. All of it would have a profound influence on his artistic vision as an adult.
Nishikawa worked his way through San Francisco State University, where he created his own degree – a B.A. in Asian American Theater – in interdisciplinary studies, by combining creative writing, ethnic studies and theater. While still a student, Nishikawa had already begun writing when he was introduced to the Bay Area’s Asian American Theater Workshop (later known as the Asian American Theater Company).
He says, “What amazed me were these stories about Asian American lives, and that was something I felt I wanted to pursue and look into – because it was exactly what I was writing about in terms of free verse, spoken word poetry, street poetry – it was very similar. But here you had a real structure to it and all the characters were Asian, and it really affected me. And that’s when I started to try to understand the power of theater.”
In 1985, Nishikawa wrote and performed the first of his critically acclaimed one-man shows – “Life in the Fast Lane” – about the personal turmoil of being an Asian-American writer who can’t get published. The show toured for four years throughout North America, Canada, and Europe.
Beginning in 1986, Nishikawa served as the Artistic Director for the Asian American Theater Company for ten seasons – where he was responsible for selecting and staging six productions a year from submissions across the country, along with an intensive reading series that presented six plays in six weekends.
In 1991, he debuted his second one-man show, “I’m On A Mission From Buddha,” about the plight of Asian American actors trying to break into mainstream roles in a country where “American” means “white.”
The explosive 90-minute show featured 18 vignettes in which he played a repertoire of characters – ranging from a stand-up comic and Japanese rap artist to a sushi-fearing redneck and 442nd Nisei veteran of World War II. He also wove in candid, autobiographical monologues about the humorous ironies of growing up Japanese in America and the manic frustrations of being an actor with an Asian face.
Following a major national tour, “I’m On A Mission From Buddha” was adapted for television and premiered on PBS’ KQED-TV in San Francisco, on January 25, 1991, and was subsequently nationally broadcast through PBS stations throughout the country.
His two-man play, “The Gate of Heaven,” co-written and performed with Victor Talmadge, examines the extraordinary friendship between a Japanese American soldier and the Jewish survivor he rescues from Dachau, and was inspired by one of his uncle’s experience as a member of the 522nd Artillery Unit of the 100th/442nd Regiment, that liberated one of the notorious concentration camps at Dachau, during World War II.
“The Gate of Heaven” – later became the basis of Nishikawa’s first film – premiered at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego as part of its 1997 regular season, then moved to The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, and later to the Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. for another full run. Among its other notable engagements, it was presented at the U.S. Holocaust Museum on the 50th commemoration of the Holocaust.
Nishikawa spent a year as the Co-Artistic Director of the Eureka Theater, which was known for mounting socially conscious works, and later served as a Resident Director at the prestigious San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, where his interpretation of one of the classics was mounted with a multi-ethnic cast.
Nishikawa’s third one-man play, “Mifune and Me,” looked at 150 years of Asian-American images, both positive and negative.
In 1999, he adapted “The Gate of Heaven” into his first film, “When We Were Warriors” – made possible through a grant from the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund.
His second film, “Forgotten Valor,” funded by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, won the Best Short Feature in the Hawaiian International Film Festival in 2001.
“This is a highly professional, highly polished endeavor,” wrote Sacramento Bee film critic Joe Baltake. “…There are moments in ‘Forgotten Valor’ that are reminiscent of William Wyler’s ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946). Nishikawa gets at the undercurrent of discontent that prevents men like George from achieving any degree of happiness….The film is extremely relevant, even though it’s been inspired by events that happened more than five decades ago. That war is still very much alive inside the minds and hearts of some of its survivors.”
In 2001, he returned to playwriting with “Gila River,” which followed the dreams of a young Nisei baseball star from his internment during WWII to fighting in the Pacific for America and coming face-to-face with his brother who is fighting for Japan.
A year later, when the National Endowment of the Arts funded an official White House Millennium Project pairing 50 nationally-recognized artists (from actors to filmmakers) with hosting arts organizations in each of the 50 states, the Maui Arts & Cultural Center (representing Hawaii) selected Nishikawa as their recipient The three-month residency that followed resulted in his play, “When We Were One,” inspired by his grandparents’ unlikely love story and the history of Maui during the first 25 years of the 20th Century.
In 2002, he received his second California Civil Liberties Public Education Program Grant, with fiscal sponsor, the National Japanese American Historical Society, and allowing him to develop his first feature length motion picture, “Only the Brave.” It took two years, but together they raised the budget, and through the help of Universal Studios, Lane was able to spend half of his shooting days in the backlot.
Over the years, he has taught creative writing and acting at Stanford University, San Francisco State University and Maui Community College, among other schools.
His unique style of free verse – which became the basis of his one-man plays – had been published in Time to Greez: Incantations from the Third World, Ayumi: The Japanese American Anthology, Bridge Magazine, and The 20th Century Edition of Gidra. In recognition of the extraordinary impact of his work, Nishikawa has received numerous honors over the years, including ABC Television – Profiles in Excellence, the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the Japanese American Community Cultural Center Humanitarian Award, the Harvard Foundation, the White House Millennium Council, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, the George Nakashima Peace Award, the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, and most recently, the National Park Service – Japanese American Confinement Sites Program. Lane currently sits on the advisory board of the San Diego JACL, and served on the advisory boards of the Pacific Arts Movement, and the Go For Broke National Educational Foundation.