As Amy Hill explains it, the Japanese language uses deep feeling to slice through contradictions. Her Japanese dictionary defines the word “shibui,” for instance, as sulen; an astringent; tasty; a trained voice…. “Hear the contradictions?” she asks me. “In Japanese you have to experience the word to understand it.” Hill believes that in order to understand the Japanese language you must first live the culture, and in order to live the culture you must first speak Japanese. A contradiction? yes, but Amy Hill is no longer afraid of contradictions, as her three one-woman shows, Tokyo Bound, Beside Myself and Reunion, attest.Order now
Born in Deadwood, S.D. to a Japanese war-bride and a Finnish-American father, she counts the sting of prejudice among her earliest memories. She describes her early life with the vocabulary of a double agent: “I realized that I needed to get into a certain groups in order to operate. So I did a lot of observation, and would find my way in. But I was always on guard.” The family moved to Seattle, and by the time she was in high school, suffering was the only thing that made sense. She became an artiste, wore black, smoked unfiltered cigarettes. At 18, Hill wanted to move to Paris, but her mother would only finance a move to Japan. So reluctantly, she packed her black turtlenecks and moved to Tokyo.
From Deadwood to Tokyo
“In Japan, I’m exotic,” explains Hill, who was soon hired by Japanese supermarkets who billed her as “the California girl,” paying her $100 a day to distribute lemons. Then came real celebrity as the host of a radio travelogue about Japan, told from a foreigner’s perspective. The program was a hit, and so was Hill. For once it literally paid to be an outsider: “I was outside,” she says, “but it was okay, because I was special.”
As Hill’s public career gathered momentum in Tokyo, however, her life’s path was quietly drawn inward. “My mother began writing me letters–in Japanese,” she says. “It was the first time she’d spoken to me in her native language. I was stunned.” As she recounts in Tokyo Bound, her mother was transformed from “this goofball illiterate who could barely read or write English–to this formidable, intelligent woman.” Mother and daughter began a rich correspondence that was a profound source of self-discovery for Hill.
After six years of Japanese celebrity, realizing that the country’s fascination with her was based largely on appearance, Hill retraced her steps back to America in 1978. Within an hour of her arrival in San Francisco, she’d found what would become her new home–the theatre. “My friends who met me at the airport were doing a tech rehearsal that night at the new Asian-American Theater Workshop, and we went there straight from the airport. And there I stayed for eight years.”
Hill had arrived at the inception of that theatre, and was quickly welcomed into a family of determined artists. “During the day I would take classes at ACT |San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre~, then at night I would teach what I had learned at the Asian-American,” she recounts. “I was teaching and directing and acting, while I was learning.” Out of that flurry of creativity came some landmark productions, including Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wash, David Henry Hwang’s F.O.B. and Genny Lim’s Paper Angels.
After eight frantic, productive years at the Asian-American Theatre Workshop, Hill uprooted herself and moved again–this time to Los Angeles, where the Japanese American Cultural Community Center asked her in 1991 to create a monologue for its annual “Fresh Tracks” series. “I wanted to be surprised by what came out of me,” she recalls. A slow process of journalizing her memories gave birth to Tokyo Bound, a spiritual travelogue through racism, Japanese culture and the search for identity.
Alternately outrageous and reflective, Hill plays out a series of vivid snapshots of Japanese women: a department store “escalator girl,” wearing white gloves and hat, who continuously wipes the handrail of the escalator with a handkerchief while welcoming the customers. Or a pop singer in a fluffy red dress covered with Japanese snack package labels, lip-synching the disco refrain Shinu hodo itai na no yo! (“I’d rather die than say goodbye”), dragging a pantomime dagger across her stomach in mass-media seppuku. Or the female talk-show host who suffers from a hacking smoker’s cough (“I gave up many things in life. Marriage. Family… cough… Smoking… long pause…My uterus…”). These flamboyant, hilarious characterizations are contrasted with her own painful attempts to fit in, braving public nudity in public baths and shopping for clothes that were always several sizes too small.
A Japanese talking clock
Developed in collaboration with director Anne Etue and dramaturg Judith Nihei, Tokyo Bound reflects America’s desperate search for a multi-ethnic philosopher’s stone, and Hill has toured the show around the country, from Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival to the New York Shakespeare Festival. But when the Rodney King riots tore through Los Angeles, Hill stopped writing. “I just didn’t know what I could do to make an impact,” she says. “Then as I watched the riots I remembered feeling that kind of rage when I was young. I started writing childhood memories, and that’s when Beside Myself started.”
While Beside Myself chronicles events in her childhood and youth that shaped her perception of the world, her most recent piece, Reunion, focuses on someone else: Hill’s 80-year-old mother, portrayed by her daughter in a series of conversations with a Japanese-speaking talking clock. “Reunion is my mother’s story, but really all women’s,” Hill says.
In addition to her solo work, Hill works as an actress in theatre, television and film, and also produces and hosts a public access cable show focusing on Asian-Pacific Americans in arts and entertainment. A member of the Mark Taper Forum’s Mentor Playwrights Program, she recently directed 29 1/2 Dreams: Women Walking Through Walls at East West Players in Los Angeles.
Amy Hill seems to have inherited an important strategy from the Japanese: Her surfeit of charm eases our awareness of being confronted. It is only in retrospect that we find ourselves sympathetically weighing Hill’s conflicts as though they were our own–that we discover it was not only Amy Hill’s identity hanging in the balance, but ours as well.